One of the things that truly surprised me as a soon-to-be parent was that people had very strong opinions about where a baby should sleep. There also seemed to be lots of options: in cribs in their own rooms, first in bassinets or cradles in their own rooms and then cribs, first in bassinets or cradles in their mothers’ rooms and then in a crib in their own rooms, first in basinets or cradles in their mothers’ rooms and then in cribs in their mothers’ rooms . . . or simply in their mothers’ beds. Well, the US government now actively discourages parents from having their babies sleep with them because it is too easy for parents to turn over and crush or smother their infants, but I would argue that this depends a great deal on how parents sleep. In fact, the whole debate should revolve primarily around parent’s sleeping needs and styles and, of course, the financial situation. Nevertheless, cultures introduce a number of strong opinions–often viewed as mandates.
The mainstream US culture (if we can pretend momentarily that this is an actual reality) has pressed for a long time to make infants as independent as possible. This probably has its roots in the experiences of pioneers who tended to lose more infants than they safely saw to childhood. Believing that infants should from birth be raised to be independent may have had more to do with parents’ protecting themselves from caring too much for their infants than the needs of the infants. Erik Erikson has some compelling insights into this in his book Childhood and Society. The idea, however, of infants having their own room was largely an impossibility until the housing boom of the 1950s. Living in New York City has made this very real for me because my family members in Ohio simply cannot understand why I live in an apartment with only one bathroom or why my children must be forced to share a bedroom. Giving you children a “nursery” is in large part a question of status: I am rich enough to have nursery, and this is obviously superior to any other arrangement that they cannot afford. Compare this idea creating an independent child just be giving them their own room or not allowing them to sleep with their parents sometimes when they are older to the Greek and Italian habit of having their children never leaving home; they often will move into the apartment upstairs or next door instead. Similarly, Mexicans have brought their habit of living with extended family to the US, reportedly occupying whole blocks upon occasion. The tendency is for us to accept how we see most people doing things as “natural” or “better.” So what does psychological theory have to say on this?
Psychology in fact rarely has anything specific to say about anything–except for when that specific study has been done. And in fact it exists at http://cosleeping.nd.edu and other places. If you don’t know already, you need to think critically about research because it takes a lot of research before you can be even moderately certain of anything. This is part of the reason that “official advice” keeps changing: new research. I’ll devote a blog to the problem of depending on a few research studies or depending on the research of only a single individual or laboratory, but the National Institute of Health now recommend sharing a room but not a bed with infants (https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sts/Pages/default.aspx). The research largely attempts to isolate variables so that policy can be made based on correlations. The difficulty is that one cannot reliably infer causation from a correlation. And it can be entirely without theory. Theory, I would argue, is often a better guide because it describes the nature of relationships between variables (or better yet, in my opinion, does not divide the world into discrete variables, but I will make an effort to discuss that more elsewhere). There are really two theoretical approaches that offer guidance.
The first is the idea of evolution. It is a very imperfect approach because we are extremely limited in our ability to test hypotheses drawn from this approach, but the idea of evolution offers a way of theorizing how we might have evolved to function. We do not know much about how humans lived half a million years ago when our species seems to have become distinct. Nor do we know the details about how we lived when civilization emerged about 10,000 years ago. Nevertheless, due to the necessity of breastfeeding and the simple accommodations that were available, it does not seem too careless to assume that infants slept within close proximity to their mothers. The difficulty of keeping them warm enough to survive suggests that body warmth was essential. Therefore, believing that we evolved while sleeping in our mothers’ arms seems to make sense, thus one argument is that infants evolved to “expect” or be predisposed to thriving when they have skin-to-skin contact routinely with another person. This theory suggests that babies sleeping with their mothers.
But as I indicated, it is hard to find much evidence for or against evolutionary theories. One theory that has a great deal of evidence, though is in need a lot of refinement still in my opinion, is attachment theory. Briefly, attachment theory argues that infants need a secure attachment to become healthy adults and that any attachment is better than none because the complete absence of attachment may result in the infant’s death. As psychologists learn more about what makes a secure attachment and how influential it is, we should be trying to use common sense about how to assure security. I do not believe that sleeping with an infant assures a secure attachment nor that it is necessary for a secure attachment, but forcing a child from your bed is quite likely to result in feeling like a rejection. Appropriate intimacy with an infant can only be a good thing, and determining what is appropriate can best be determines by paying attention to how the infant reacts. I know for certain that my babies were very content when they slept in my arms.
Practicality still places demands above and beyond theory however. I was worried that my husband would turn over on the baby and crush her and terrified that she might fall out of bed, so I my babies fell asleep in my arms but slept nearby in a safe crib or playpen. As they aged, I never refused to have them in my bed, though did work toward one child sleeping on the floor next to me as my career became more demanding. If a parent knows they are more likely to start screaming at the child if their sleep is often interrupted, that is far more important than the comfort babies might take from sleeping with a parent. So, in short, think about it and decide what makes the most sense for your living arrangements, sleep needs, and infant needs. I wish I had know about the cribs that can be attached to beds, giving the infant protection from being crushed or falling out of bed while keeping the baby within reach of a parent. When a mother is breastfeeding, this seems an obvious solution!