Whoever coined the phrase "sleep like a baby" is a mean, dirty liar, to which any parent of a newborn can attest. Newborns don't so much "sleep" as they nap between bouts of feeding, crying, and diaper changes. Sleep-deprived parents will do just about anything to ensure that baby gets a good night's sleep, but so that they themselves can get some much-needed shuteye, too. That's why you'll find such a variety of sleep options out there: co-sleeping, bed-sharing, and room-sharing. But on Monday, a new study found bed-sharing could contribute to mental health issues. Oy, as if parents didn't have enough to worry about their newborn infants already.
The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, examined a group of Brazilian children from birth to age 6, while taking into account bed-sharing and its potential affect on the children's mental health. And this wasn't researchers asking little Pablo to draw pictures of their moods, either: When the children turned 6, researchers administered the Development and Well-Being Assessment (DAWBA) questionnaire to their caregivers — a standard instrument used in the field of psychiatry for assessing psychiatric diagnoses in children ages 5 through 17. The results were surprising: "Bed-sharing is a common practice in our setting and is associated with impaired child mental health at the age of six years."
Whoa, that's a pretty sobering conclusion. But let's parse down the study a little bit more. It should be noted that the study defined bed-sharing specifically as the "habitual sharing of the bed between the child and the mother, for sleeping, for part of the night or the whole night." (Sorry dads, no scientific results for you.) Researchers also categorized infants and children in their study into four specific groups:
- Non-sharers (44.4 percent of the study group) were children who did not bed-share at all with their mothers, and were used as a control group.
- Early-only bed-sharers (36.2 percent) stayed in mom's bed until two years old, then steadily reducing bed-sharing by the time they were six years old.
- Late-onset bed-sharers (12 percent) didn't share mom's bed that much from months three through 12, but increased after the child turned a year old.
- Persistent bed-sharers (7.4 percent) were not only more likely to share a bed with their mothers at just 3 months old, but continued to do so all the way through age six.
When looking at all of these groups, researchers found that early-onset and persistent bed-sharers were more likely to have developed "internalizing problems" by the time they were 6 years old — internalized problems were depression and anxiety, as defined in this study. Now if you co-sleep or bed-share, there's no need to book your child's therapist now, as there are some pretty important limitations that also need to be said about this study, too.
First, this study looked only at children who lived in Pelotas, Brazil, a city of almost 350,000 in the southern coast of the country. Compared to similar bed-sharing and mental health studies conducted in the United Kingdom, the researchers noted that Brazilian children bed-shared three times more than their U.K. peers. Additionally, the entire cohort of children examined in the Brazilian families had lower socioeconomic opportunity than their U.S. or U.K. peers featured in similar studies. While it's unfair to say that the deck is stacked against these children for the purposes of the study, it is fair to say that there is a greater realm of cultural influence at play here.
So, what does this mean if you bed-share or co-sleep? There is now data to suggest that bed-sharing could cause psychiatric issues such as depression or anxiety. In light of new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics about how parents should share their room with their baby for 12 months, it seems like a no-brainer: Get the baby off the bed but in the room with you and heaven forbid they have their own nursery, right? Slow down there, mamas and papas.
As with every recommendation — remember, they're not rules — and scientific study out there, it's up to parents and caregivers to decide what is the safest and best sleeping arrangements for their family. Think of it this way: You wouldn't hop on a jet to some foreign country without doing a little research first, so, in the spirit of being an informed parent, consider scientific studies and recommendations like these as homework and decide what's best for you and your family.