Co-Sleeping With a Toddler and Mom's Health

cosleeping toddler

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The decision to co-sleep (or not) with your child is a personal one. There is no right or wrong choice; it's simply what works best for your family. Additionally, many parents may change their sleep habits throughout their child's early years, choosing to co-sleep at one point and then having their child sleep independently at other times.

There are many different reasons why a family might choose to co-sleep with their children. Some families believe co-sleeping is a healthy and natural approach to sleep.

Others might find co-sleeping makes the burden of nighttime feedings a little easier. And still others might just happen to fall into accidental co-sleeping as it becomes easier to just accept an occasional nighttime visit from their little one instead of fighting them.

What Is Co-Sleeping?

Co-sleeping is when a parent or caregiver shares a sleeping surface with their child for part or all of the night. A family might sleep in the same bed, or one parent might sleep with the child while the other parent takes another room or sleeping surface.

Families may co-sleep for the entire night or it might happen for part of the night, such as when a toddler sneaks into their parent's bed and spends the rest of the night there. There are many different ways to co-sleep, but essentially, it boils down to a parent and a child occupying a sleeping area together for all or part of a night.

Many families who co-sleep start the co-sleeping practice during a child's infant years. As a result, there has been a lot of focus on the safety of co-sleeping during a baby's infancy.

It's important to note, however, that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against co-sleeping of any kind during a child's first year of life when the risk of SIDS is highest.

The AAP does suggest that parents sleep in the same room as their infants (known as "room-sharing") for at least the first 6 months of their life. But they recommend that babies sleep on a safe, separate sleeping surface like a bassinet or crib instead of sharing a bed with their parents.

While the AAP's stance on co-sleeping with infants is firm, the organization doesn't have any specific co-sleeping guidelines for toddlers after the first year of life.

Overview of Co-Sleeping Studies

Regardless of the reasons for co-sleeping, the effects of co-sleeping on a family can vary quite a bit. One family might find co-sleeping to be a positive experience and believe it brings the family closer while others might be frustrated with sharing the bed with a little one.

What's more, the benefits and pitfalls of co-sleeping vary among studies. In fact, one study published in 2017, suggested that co-sleeping with a toddler may negatively affect some mothers' mental health. Meanwhile, another study found that there were no adverse behavioral effects or drops in cognition at age 5 for kids who participated in bed-sharing during toddlerhood.

Likewise, this study did not find any connections between maternal depressive symptoms and co-sleeping. The study's authors suggested that studies prior to this 2011 study might have done their research closer to the early postpartum period, which could explain the negative impact on mental health.

But, the researchers in the 2017 study wanted to expand on those earlier studies and take a closer look at co-sleeping's impact on mothers specifically. In their study, they found a connection between co-sleeping and mental health among lower-income mothers.

Impact on Mothers

The 2017 study, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, was one of the first of its kind to look specifically at the effects that co-sleeping can have on a mother's mental health. The study explained that when children have sleep problems, it's common for parents to get insufficient sleep and even more common for mothers to be the most severely affected.

Previous research had also linked poor sleep in children to negative outcomes in the mother's mental health. So, researchers wanted to examine specifically what happens when mothers co-sleep with their toddlers, and if co-sleeping could make those mental health problems worse.

The study looked at low-income mothers of toddlers, who ranged in age from 12 to 32 months, who were from WIC offices and pediatric clinics. The mothers were asked to complete questionnaires on their toddlers' sleep habits, their own sleep, and mental health symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and stress.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when mothers reported their toddlers as having sleep problems, they also reported an interruption in their own sleep. And when mothers co-slept with their toddlers, they reported even more sleep disruptions.

Throughout the study, the mothers reported having their sleep interrupted by the child moving in the bed and waking them up. The mothers who co-slept also reported having more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Mothers who didn't co-sleep with their toddlers didn't report as many negative mental health symptoms.

When their toddlers had perceived sleep problems, mothers lost an average of 51 minutes of sleep when co-sleeping.

Overall, the study showed how mothers who saw their toddlers as having sleep problems or issues sleeping through the night were more likely to co-sleep with their toddlers in an attempt to get their toddlers to sleep better. Of course, there's no way to prove that co-sleeping really does help toddlers with perceived sleep problems sleep better.

It is possible that parents who aren't necessarily co-sleeping by choice are having their sleep interrupted—and their mental health affected—without any positive impact on their child's sleep.

Why Families Co-Sleep

So, if co-sleeping has the potential to negatively impact a mother's sleep and mental health, why do families do it? As the study indicated, there are many different reasons—not all obvious at first glance—that might lead to a decision to co-sleep.

Everything from living situations, a lack of sleeping spaces, and cultural beliefs and traditions can contribute to the decision to co-sleep. Some parents might work night shifts, for example, and choose to co-sleep to spend more time together with their children.

Meanwhile, other families believe that co-sleeping comes with benefits such as allowing children to bond with their parents. Co-sleeping can even help kids feel safe and secure. And, one study even found that it benefits fathers too. For instance, one study found when fathers slept close to their babies, their nighttime testosterone levels dropped (a hormonal change associated with more hands-on caregiving and showing more empathy toward their babies) when compared to fathers who did not co-sleep.

But for other families, like many in the 2017 study, co-sleeping is not beneficial to their sleep or their family. They are tired and long for more space in the bed. As a result, they don't actually want to co-sleep but aren't sure how to help their toddler sleep more independently.

How to Encourage Independent Sleep

If your family is co-sleeping with a toddler and you hope to encourage your toddler to sleep more independently, you may wonder how to get a toddler to sleep on their own. If you've tried and been unsuccessful, you probably already know that breaking a co-sleeping habit can be difficult.

You're exhausted. Your child is exhausted, and everyone is cranky. As a result, it can be incredibly hard to make the necessary changes to help implement a new habit. But, there are several strategies you can implement to try to encourage independent sleep. Here is an overview of a few strategies you can try:

  • Work with your pediatrician to develop a sleep plan. There's no shame in asking for help from a professional. Sleep is important for the entire family and in fact, it might be one of the most important factors for overall health. So, it just makes sense to include your child's pediatrician in any struggles you may be facing with sleep so you can work on a plan for the future together.
  • Consider a sleep coach. If you have the financial means, a sleep coach might be the right choice for your family. Families who have utilized a sleep coach have seen results in as little as one to two sessions. Consequently, it may be worth the investment and not as costly as you imagine if you see results quickly.
  • Bring in a third party. You might consider enlisting the help of a third party, like a grandparent, family member, or friend who can help for a few nights as everyone settles into a new routine. This person might help get the toddler settled into bed so they are less apt to ask to come into your bed. This person also might want to be available through the night as the little one gets comfortable in their new sleeping environment.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to note that co-sleeping during infancy is not recommended as part of current safe sleep practices by the American Academy of Pediatrics, but there is not a lot of research on co-sleeping during the toddler years.

When it comes to co-sleeping with your toddler, it ultimately comes down to choosing the option that works best for your family. The bottom line is that a good night's sleep is important to everyone, and it impacts both your physical and mental health.

If you're currently co-sleeping and it's working for you, there is no reason to change anything. But if it's not working for your family, talk to your child's pediatrician to create a plan of action so that your little one can learn to sleep more independently.

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Article Sources
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  1. SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths: Updated 2016 recommendations for a safe infant sleeping environment. Pediatrics, 2016;138(5). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2938

  2. Covington LB, Armstrong B, Black MM. Perceived toddler sleep problems, co-sleeping, and maternal sleep and mental health. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2018;39(3):238-245. doi:10.1097/DBP.0000000000000535

  3. Barajas RG, Martin A, Brooks-Gunn J, Hale L. Mother-child bed-sharing in toddlerhood and cognitive and behavioral outcomes. Pediatrics. 2011;128(2):e339-47. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-3300

  4. Gettler LT, Mckenna JJ, Mcdade TW, Agustin SS, Kuzawa CW. Does cosleeping contribute to lower testosterone levels in fathers? Evidence from the Philippines. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(9):e41559. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041559

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