The Reluctant Family Bed

A reporter asked me this week: “What is the most common question you get from parents?” Easy answer, regardless of age: “How do I get my child to sleep through the night?”

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The New York Times House & Home section this week (Thursday, March 1) led with a provocative piece about co-sleeping titled, “Whose Bed Is It Anyway?” The basic premise is that many families are struggling with getting their kids to sleep in their own beds, long after infancy, toddler years, preschool and well into school age years. The phrase describing parents profiled in the article that resonated with me is “reluctant co-sleeper”; this unease is what distinguishes these families (and most in my office) from happy, contented family-bed advocates. There is no “right” way to sleep in your household. It is an individual decision, like whether or not to start preschool at 2, 3 or 4 years old, or not at all, or daycare vs. in-home care, and on and on. However, I find most parents are not content sharing their bed with their children past a certain age. That could be at one week, four months, two years, whenever – the point is, if it’s not working for you, it’s time for a change. The challenge, of course, is that it is much harder to reverse the family-bed routine once it’s been in place for years versus weeks or months. Parents need to think carefully about this decision early on, because it’s much harder to tell a 3 year-old to stay put at bedtime than a 3 month-old.

Jean Kundhardt, from the Soho Parenting Center in NYC, really gets to the heart of the matter, suggesting that “parents, stung by the sometimes arbitrary boundaries set by their own parents, are concerned to a fault with the emotional well-being of their children.” Neil Newman, a Manhattan psychologist, comments astutely that “the origin of the problem is the difficulty parents have in setting appropriate limits.”

The sleep issue is a window into overall family dynamics, allowing me an opening to discuss general parenting concerns. Encouraging open dialogue promotes a deeper connection between me and families in my practice.

For more commentary on sleep issues in childhood, see my posts “To Sleep” and “To Sleep, Part II.”

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