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Co-sleeping: Another Way to Promote Infant Health
Harvard psychiatrist Michael Commons and his colleagues recently presented the American Association for the Advancement of Science with research that suggests that babies who sleep alone are more susceptible to stress disorders.
Notre Dame anthropology professor and leading sleep researcher, James McKenna has long held that babies who sleep with their mothers enjoy greater immunological benefits from breast-feeding because they nurse twice as frequently as their counterparts who sleep alone.
In his book on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Pediatrician William Sears cites co-sleeping as a proactive measure parents can take to reduce the risk of this tragedy. His theory, based on McKenna's research, is that babies who sleep with parents spend less time in Level III sleep, a state of deep sleep when the risk of apneas are increased. Further, co-sleeping babies learn to imitate healthy breathing patterns from their bunkmates.
Every scientific study of infant sleep confirms that babies benefit from co-sleeping. Not one shred of evidence exists to support the widely-held notion that co-sleep is detrimental to the psychological or physical health of infants.
If science consistently provides evidence that the American social norm of isolating babies for sleep can have deleterious effects, why do we continue the 150-year crib culture in the United States? Why do parents flock to Toys R' Us to purchase dolls that have heart beats, sing lullabies, and snore when they can do the same for free?
McKenna suggests that there are several factors that maintain this cultural norm. Foremost, is the American value on self-sufficiency. Independence is an important characteristic for a successful person in our society. We take great pride in watching our babies pick themselves up by their own bootie straps. But the assumption that co-sleeping inhibits independence is pure cultural mythology. In fact, the opposite is true.
Children who share sleep with their parents are actually more independent than their peers. They perform better in school, have higher self esteem, and fewer health problems. After all, who is more likely to be well-adjusted -- the child who learns that his needs will be met, or the one who is left alone for long periods of time? McKenna suggests that it is confusing for a baby to receive cuddles during the day, while also being taught that the same behavior is inappropriate at night.
The Commons report states that when babies are left alone to cry themselves to sleep, levels of cortisol, a stress hormone are elevated. Commons suggests that the constant stimulation by cortisol in infancy causes physical changes in the brain. "It makes you more prone to the effects of stress, more prone to illness, including mental illness and makes it harder to recover from illness," he concludes.
The best-selling book on infant sleep is frighteningly misdirected and offers absolutely no scientific grounds for its thesis. Richard Ferber suggests that the best way to solve your child's "sleep problems" is to isolate them in another room, shut the door, and let them cry for ten minutes without interruption. Then parents may enter the room and verbally soothe the baby, but are warned against making physical contact with their baby. Shortly after, they are advised to leave the infant to cry for another timed interval a la "Mad About You."
Most sleep disorders are not biologically based, but rather, created by well intended parents. Making oneself available by intercom is simply not meeting the nighttime needs of an infant.
Many parents argue that they tried "Ferberizing" their baby and enjoyed great success with the technique. Indeed the infant may stop crying and learn to go to sleep on his own, but this is a short-term pay off for parents. The baby has not suddenly discovered quiet content. He is simply exhausted from his futile efforts to be nurtured. Fifteen years later, these same parents shrug their shoulders and wonder why their kids are shutting them out.
Though co-sleeping is common in most parts of the world, many American parents would not consider it because they fear it will cause them sleep deprivation. Every scientific study concludes that parents who bring their babies to bed sleep longer and better.
A few parents do experience difficulty sleeping with a baby in their bed. For them, a "sidecar" or bedside sleeper is an ideal way to meet their needs for rest and their babies' need for co-sleep. Keeping a crib or bassinet in the parents' room is another option. A "family bed" is not for everyone, but creative solutions for co-sleep are abundant in our consumer-friendly culture.>
The most common question co-sleepers are asked is about maintaining a sexual relationship with one's partner. The answer is simple. Go someplace where the baby is not. Enough said.
For those who consider unlimited access to their sexual partner more important than meeting the needs of their baby, cat ownership is a wonderful alternative to parenthood. You can just toss some Nine Lives in a bowl and frolic around the house whenever the mood hits you.
Co-sleeping is not right for everyone. Heavy drinkers and drug addicts should avoid sleeping with their babies. Of course, these folks should probably avoid parenthood altogether.
If scientific research consistently demonstrates that co-sleeping offers tremendous benefits for babies, and has no deleterious effects, it's time Americans join the rest of the world and parent our babies 24 hours a day.
© Jennifer Coburn; reproduced with permission.
Jennifer Coburn is the author of Take Back Your Power: A Working Woman's Response to Sexual Harassment, which recently won an honorable mention from the National Women's Heritage Museum book awards and an Outstanding Book Award from the Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America.