The Family Bed

The family bed harkens to Medieval times and thousands of years of parenting in most parts of the world. It began out of necessity: keeping the family’s youngest members close for protection and warmth and bundling together when there weren’t enough rooms for sleeping separately. The family bed, also called sleep-sharing, or co-sleeping, is still prevalent in most societies. It is primarily in the United States that, for a number of decades, the practice has fallen out of favor and even been vigorously criticized.

the family bed

Parenting expert Tina Thevenin, author of The Family Bed—An Age-Old Concept in Child-Rearing, says the family bed is a tradition that “satisfies a child’s basic need for love and produces inner strength and a feeling of security.” Not everyone agrees. Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of the parenting bible Baby and Children, and others feel the family bed can interfere with children’s socialization and acceptance of rules. Child psychiatrist Dr. Gary Gelber believes the practice can lead to separation problems, making it difficult for children to leave home or end future love relationships. Gelber also acknowledges that the family bed increases the amount of contact fathers have with children, and fosters a sense of connectedness among family members.

  The family bed was common in America until about 150 years ago. Most families were unable to afford separate sleeping quarters for all family members. As a result, many in our modern materialistic society identify the family bed with poverty, and affirm their affluence with separate rooms for parents and children.  Some also feel the trend away from the family bed paralleled the shift from breast- to bottle-feeding.

Proponents of the family bed believe its benefits are many. Among them: It provides more physical contact for babies, vital in the first year; makes breastfeeding easier, encouraging mothers to continue; enables babies, who have natural gaps in breathing, to learn from their mothers’ breathing patterns; reduces nighttime dangers, such as fire, sexual abuse, abductions and attacks by pets; deepens emotional bonds and makes any form of abuse less likely; fosters better sleep for all family members; lessens stressful night crying; and promotes greater love among siblings.

The family bed offered another advantage with our son: It put him on our clock. He went to sleep earlier than we did, but almost always slept until we awoke. He had no trouble transitioning to his own bed when he was ready, at 4 or 5 years, and has always been self-confident, independent, and emotionally healthy and mature.

Even with advances in communication and travel, people today often seem physically and emotionally distant from each other. The family bed satisfies a primal, instinctive need among many parents and children. As Dr. James McKenna says, they are “biologically and psychologically adapted” to it. “Solitary infant sleep,” he says, is a “recent, novel and alien experience for the human child.”

The majority of the world’s families still share the family bed. I am grateful we were among them.