A new study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, sides with those parents who have no problem with bed-sharing and concludes the practice neither helps nor harms a child.
"There's no evidence that bed-sharing is harmful psychologically or any other way, when compared to other forms of sleep," says study author Paul Okami, a researcher in the department of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
With his colleagues, Okami followed a group of 205 California-born children and their parents, beginning in 1975. The sample is part of the larger, long-term study known as the Family Lifestyles Project. They categorized 154 of the families as having unconventional lifestyles. The other 51 families were described as conventional because they were headed by two married parents.
The researchers picked a "target" child from each family, following him or her through age 18. They asked parents to describe their kids' usual sleeping arrangements at 5 months, and again at 3, 4 and 6 years. Then they questioned them about their children's development and behavior, asking about such things as their sleep, their relationships with peers and others, their emotional maturity and, later, use of drugs and whether they were sexually active.
"We found no effects," Okami says. In other words, children who had bed-shared were no more likely than those children who did not bed-share to have problems with behavior or relationships, drug use, smoking or vandalism, to name a few parameters measured.
They did find, not surprisingly, that the unconventional families were more likely to have the bed-sharing habit than the conventional families. Overall, more than a third of the families said their infant was in the same room or same bed at 5 months, at least intermittently, with 9 percent bed sharing regularly. Between ages 3 and 5, 6 percent bed shared regularly. By age 6, 3 percent did so regularly.
The reluctance on the part of some American parents to let a child into their bed is regarded as peculiar in other parts of the world, where bed-sharing is the norm, Okami says.
"All over the world, parents bed-share," he says. "When [these] people look at us, they think we're heartless."
Okami acknowledges there can be safety issues about which parents should be aware. These can include falling asleep and rolling on top of the child.
In recent years, studies have found infants are more likely to die in their sleep if they share a bed with their mothers, especially if the mother is heavy.
Okami's study findings make sense to Dr. Flora Robinson, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It does not surprise me," she says.
She often has parents who ask about bed-sharing, she says, and "I'm sensitive to cultural values of families I see." For some, including some of her Indian and Hispanic patients, bed-sharing is a cultural habit.
"If they prefer it, I do not discourage it," she says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that bed-sharing "may be hazardous under certain conditions," and recommends that parents may want to consider alternatives, such as placing a crib next to the parent's bed.
The academy also suggests that if a preschooler has nightmares caused by sexual anxiety (from, say, hearing parents making love) that the child should be calmed down and then led back to his own bed.
Okami stops short of giving specific advice to parents based on his study, since he is a researcher and not a pediatrician. However, he does recommend that parents "get educated. Don't let other people make your decisions for you."
What To Do