The topic of co-sleeping with our babies is apparently a very “hot subject” and one for which people feel extremely territorial. In our complex world, a kaleidoscope of scenarios abound (women raising children alone, etc.) and therefore strong feelings emerge on both sides of the debate. Being a sexuality counselor and having a focus on helping couples re-establish their intimate relationship to ensure a healthy sexual life after the “happy” event, I do have an opinion on this practice.
A major issue for many expert opinions against the practice of children sleeping with their parents is the increased risk of death. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Academy of Pediatrics highly recommend not sharing a bed with a child under the age of 2. They argue that it can increase the risk of death from suffocation, strangulation and sudden infant death syndrome (www.babycenter.com). Dr. James J. McKenna, who heads the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, said that “most cases of infant death while bed sharing involved extenuating circumstances, such as intoxicated or overly obese parents” (www.huffingtonpost.com).
For me, a major concern is the damage that bed sharing can have on a couple’s intimacy level and ultimately their overall satisfaction and fulfillment in the relationship. “More than half of the children who sleep with their parents, also referred to as co-sleep or bed share, tend to resist going to bed and awaken several times during the night. Parents can become sleep deprived,” studies have shown (www.cpnonline.org). This not only leads to increased levels of stress for all involved at the child’s bedtime, but sleep deprivation also causes numerous mental, physical and relationship issues. Marital problems, therefore, can occur with parents who co-sleep with their children. Co-sleeping can interrupt the parents’ intimacy. According to Dr. Michelle Golland, clinical psychologist “If one parent is not interested in sleeping with children, or is constantly pushed out because there is limited room in the bed, this can cause a distance in the marital relationship and can potentially lead to a divorce.”
There is an enormous cultural question mark over the practice of co-sleeping. If both parents are genuinely in agreement about the practice then obviously there is no conflict, no problem. The problems arise when one parent (usually, but not always, the mother) continues co-sleeping for an extended period. In my practice, I have known of parents with teenagers still regularly co-sleeping. In my opinion, making the child the focus of attention in the master bedroom from birth to whenever he/she makes the decision to want to sleep alone is the kiss of death to an adult, healthy sex life. Re-establishing a loving, spontaneous sexual relationship after the birth is crucial to a healthy partnership, and the space and privacy to do so requires a child-free environment.
Making time for intimacy as soon as possible after the birth, making it a priority, is the best first step. Being conscious of the tendency for the mother to become consumed with caregiving, breast feeding and nurturing the infant (and becoming exhausted in the process), at the same time as pushing her partner away from the same body parts, can create a lonely space from the partner’s point of view. Be aware of the need to continue to have bonding moments between the parents, too. Using the Sensate Focus exercises in my KISS bookprovides techniques that are useful to break through any inertia (on the mother’s side) and wards off intolerance to be touched in an intimate way. This interaction need not have any sexual agenda whatsoever. As you move through the beginning exercises, you lead up to more intimate touch and eventually, after the recommended six-week healing time, the exercises will help you make the re-establishment of intercourse (if this is your orientation) easier. An infant in a crib in the same room as the parents at this early stage is fine … in my opinion.
In conclusion, whatever beliefs you hold about co-sleeping, a time and a private place for adult lovemaking is vital for a long and happy relationship. Creating long-term relationships takes energy and focus and ultimately is the only secret to success.
Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer or more psychologically astute than others.
But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. They have what I call an “emotionally intelligent marriage.” John Gottman, Ph.D.
“Live in Joy, Live With Passion,”
AASECT Certified Sexuality Counselor
Dr. Fran Fisher is a well-respected clinical and educational sexologist, RN and author. She holds a doctorate in human sexuality from San Francisco’s Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. For the past 15 years, she has had a private practice in Granite Bay, Calif., where she provides very successful individual and partner sexuality counseling. You can send your questions to email@example.com and look for her on the third Tuesday of each month on The Sacramento Press.
Research intern and co-contributor: Jeanne R. Hoffar, University of San Francisco counseling psychology MA student.