By Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM
Into the ongoing, sometimes contentious conversation about the merits and risks of co-sleeping comes this interesting new information. A recent study, presented at this year’s European Congress on Obesity, suggests that young children who share a bed with their parents may be at lower risk for obesity.
Researchers at Denmark’s Copenhagen University Hospital investigated the influence of co-sleeping on children who already had an elevated risk for weight problems. They found that co-sleeping was linked to a significant decrease in the likelihood of these children actually becoming overweight.
The study included data on sleep and weight for 497 children ages 2 to 6. The data included body-mass index (BMI) measurements for the children as well as detailed information about any instances of co-sleeping with parents. All the children included in the study were considered at an elevated risk for being overweight because of one or more of three factors:
- High birth weight
- A mother who was overweight before her pregnancy
- A mother with low socio-economic status
Researchers found that children who slept in their parents’ bed every night were 70% less likely to be overweight than children who never slept with their parents. Even children who occasionally slept with their parents appeared to benefit. Children who slept for any amount of time with their parents were 50% less likely to be overweight than those kids who never slept with parents.
What is the connection? The study did not answer this question. Researchers, in discussing the study results, pointed to the possibility that the positive emotional reinforcement of sleeping close to parents might have provided children with an extra degree of protection—and that feelings of rejection from not being allowed in bed with parents could have been a trigger for gaining weight.
Co-sleeping continues to be a hot topic for parents and health professionals. Proponents point to the convenience of sleeping with a young child–whether for nighttime feedings or for comforting a restless child–as well as to the emotional bonding that occurs. Detractors warn of safety dangers for children, as well as long-term difficulties in having children sleep on their own. It can be confusing for parents to sort through the pros and cons.
When it comes to infants and babies under the age of 1 year, the medical establishment has made clear recommendations. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against parents and infants or babies under 1 year sleeping in the same bed. Historically, the primary reason behind this recommendation was to protect against SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). In 2011, the AAP expanded its recommendations for safe infant sleeping to protect against other types of sudden infant death that can occur during sleep, including suffocation and asphyxia. Instead of co-sleeping in the same bed, the AAP recommends that parents and babies sleep in the same room but in separate sleeping spaces, to maximize the opportunity for closeness and responsiveness while also guarding against health risks that have been associated with co-sleeping.
When it comes to children of toddler age and older, the decision to co-sleep becomes more individual and reflective of a particular family’s habits and needs. A recent study investigated the relationship between co-sleeping and children’s cognitive and behavioral development. After assessing the influence of co-sleeping on early math and literacy skills, as well as social skills and hyperactivity, researchers found that sleeping in a family bed had no negative consequences for young children’s development in these areas.
Safety remains an extremely important factor in a co-sleeping arrangement. Parents who choose to share a bed with their children should not drink alcohol before bedtime, as alcohol consumption increases the risk of injury to a child in a co-sleeping bed. If you’ve been drinking, you should never sleep in the same bed with your child.
Other possible challenges to consider?
Protecting private time for adults. Co-sleeping with kids can put a serious damper on their parents’ intimate relationship. If you and your partner are considering co-sleeping, make sure you both feel comfortable with the plan—a plan that should include time for sex and romance.
The ability of everyone in the bed to get a good night’s sleep. Parents and children all need to sleep well in a family bed for the arrangement to work. Young children are in the process of developing sleep habits that will influence their sleep for many years to come. It’s important that this process isn’t compromised— and that parents’ sleep isn’t adversely affected—by a co-sleeping arrangement.
Obesity is a dangerously escalating problem in the United States, for children as well as for adults. Obesity rates among children have tripled over the past 30 years. Today, 17% of kids in the U.S. are obese, and that number is expected to climb. Obesity is an increasing risk for even very young children, so it’s never too early to start thinking about ways to help prevent a weight problem.
Sleep plays a deeply important role in helping kids maintain a healthy weight. Co-sleeping will not be right for every family. For some families, it may make sense, and may provide a level of protection against weight problems. Most important? Making sure your child is learning the skills he needs to sleep well—which includes creating a sleep environment and routine that helps him feel safe, supported, and loved.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
Everything you do, you do better with a good night’s sleep™