Parents often ask whether it’s a good or a bad thing to sleep with their new babies. Some of the more hard core believers of strict sleep training argue that babies should be taught to sleep alone from the very beginning. A few decades ago in some societies it was considered acceptable to put a baby in the cot at bedtime, close the door, and leave him there until the next morning, even if he cried for hours.
It’s hard to measure the consequences of different kinds of parenting practices during infancy because of the hundreds of variables that complicate the picture. But Barak Morgan, Alan Horn and Nils Bergman have recently published a really interesting article in the academic on-line journal, Biological Psychiatry. The article is called, Should neonates sleep alone? The researchers have concluded that:
Maternal separation may be a stressor the human neonate is not well-evolved to cope with and may not be benign.
After hearing a lecture by one of the authors of this article, Nils Bergman, it seems this rather dry, academic conclusion is something of an understatement. There are real, measurable, convincing physiological indicators that suggest that it is extremely distressing and traumatic for a young baby (0-6 weeks) to be away from his mother.
The danger of sending this kind of information out to parents is that it has the potential to increase the guilt load that mothers carry. For new moms who are feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, exhausted or ill, it just isn’t fair to put them on a guilt trip about the harm they are doing to their babies when they need separateness in order to recover. But the research sited here is part of a much broader body of research that suggests to us that babies are better off being close to their moms for the first couple of months of life. There is, I believe, sometimes a misguided attempt to teach babies to be independent before they have learned how to trust their mothers and their fathers. From a psychological perspective, trust is the first task that a baby needs to tackle. Independence follows later.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATION: CO SLEEPING AND SIDS
There has been some concern about the danger of cot deaths in babies who sleep with their parents, especially if a parent has been drinking alcohol or is on sedating medication. Perhaps the safest option is for the baby to sleep in a separate carry cot in or next to his parents’ bed.