Sharing Bed With Toddler Won't Harm Development: Study

MONDAY July 18, 2011 -- Allowing your toddler to share your bed does not lead to behavioral or learning problems down the road, new research suggests.

"The American Academy of Pediatrics currently advises against bed-sharing during the first year of life, due to increased risk of SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome]," noted study co-author Lauren Hale, an associate professor of preventive medicine in the Graduate Program of Public Health at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. "However, very little research has investigated the potential developmental consequences of bed-sharing during toddlerhood," she added.

"We found that, after adjusting for mother and child characteristics, there were no observed cognitive or behavioral differences between children who bed-share and those who don't," Hale said.

Hale and her colleagues present their findings in the August issue of Pediatrics.

The team's current effort focused on 944 low-income families who had at least one child under the age of 1 at the start of the study.

Participants included roughly equal amounts of boys and girls. Among the children's mothers, about 30 percent were black, 25 percent were Hispanic and almost 40 percent were white.

The authors visited each family as the children turned 1, 2 and 3, at which point the mothers provided information on their child's health, parenting routines and sleeping arrangements. At age 5, all of the children underwent cognitive and behavioral testing, with a focus on math and literacy skill evaluations along with an assessment of the hyperactivity levels and social skills.

The researchers found that black and Hispanic families were more likely to bed-share with their toddlers than were white families.

Regardless, after controlling for a host of factors (including child gender, birth weight, ethnicity, economic status and maternal education) the authors found no link between toddlers who bed-shared and the onset of either cognitive or behavioral problems by the age of 5.

Hale said the findings suggest that bed-sharing is not necessarily a bad idea for toddlers.

So, she advised, "parents should make decisions about sleeping arrangements based on their specific family circumstances, with the goal of facilitating the best possible sleep for their children."

Dr. Nina Sand-Loud, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School and a developmental-behavioral pediatrician with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, agreed.

"I think each family has to work out what's best for them, in terms of what works best for their child and their child's sleep on a day-to-day basis," she said.

Also commenting on the study, Michelle M. Garrison, a research scientist with the Seattle Children's Research Institute, focused on the notion that what matters "is not so much bed-sharing itself, but rather how exactly parents go about it."

Garrison explained that "some children fall asleep in their parents' bed on their own, and then their parents get into bed later. Others fall asleep with their parents in bed at the time. And that makes a difference. Toddlers who fall asleep on their own tend to sleep more restively. And good quality sleep really does have an impact on behavioral and cognitive issues down the line," she noted.

"So bed-sharing is not necessarily something to be advised against," Garrison said. "It can actually be a positive thing. But it's just a matter of figuring out how you are going to go about it."

Regardless, Sand-Loud stressed that parents should not interpret the findings as encouragement to begin bed-sharing while children are still infants.

"It's still important to emphasize the increased risk for SIDS before 1 year of age in terms of bed-sharing," she noted. "And I would be concerned that people misconstrue from this work that it might be OK to bed-share a little bit earlier with infants just because it might be OK to do so later with toddlers. That is not the case."

More information

For more on kids and sleep, visit the Nemours Foundation.

Posted: July 2011


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