Sleep may be one of the most discussed topics in parenthood, especially if you have children under the age of 5. Everyone sleeps so everyone also has an opinion on what is the best way for babies, children, and parents alike, to get the sleep they need. There are also recommendations for how your family should sleep… and then there is the reality for family sleep habits.
As a parenting coach and educator sleep is one of the top reasons parents come to see me. Parents are stressed and feel pressure from day one to get their babies on a schedule and sleeping through the night as soon as possible. The other, lesser-known topic that parents ask me about is the sleeping arrangements for their families. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep on their own sleep surface, in the parent’s bedroom, for at least the first 6 months of infancy. Sleep expert and Director of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, Dr. James McKenna, acknowledges that parents may not always choose to have their baby on their own sleep surface and outlines safe co-sleeping guidelines for parents.
Family sleep habits go well beyond simply co-sleeping, bedsharing, or having a child in their own room; and they last well beyond the infancy stage. Despite the commonality of varying sleep arrangements, many couples are very quiet about how they spend a significant portion of their day. In Western culture an emphasis is often placed on the couple sharing a “marital bed” while the children have their own separate beds, even their own individual rooms. What the sleeping arrangement looks like behind closed doors though, is often a very different story. So, let’s take a peek into some of the most common “alternative” family sleeping habits:
Whole Family Bedsharing
This is the most common sleeping arrangement that I see, especially with children aged 2 and under. Often families have one child who sleeps in between the parents, or they push the bed against a wall and dad sleeps on the edge, mom in the middle, and baby on the wall side. Typically, these families are a little more open about their sleeping habits, but some families remain quiet due to fear of shaming around whether this is considered safe.
This sleeping arrangement happens in one of two ways. Either mom and the child/children sleep in the “marital bed” and dad sleeps on the couch or in a guest bed, or, mom and child(ren) sleep in the child’s bed. Moms with infants are often reserved about admitting this due to fear of shaming around safe sleep habits. I have found though, that just as many, if not more, mothers end up bedsharing with their children around 18months and older. By this time the worries about safe sleep have lessened and the child is still waking at night or has become scared of the dark and wants contact as they fall asleep.
Mattress on the Floor
Many parents who have children who wake in the middle of the night opt to just put a mattress on the floor so that when they wander in, they can just plop down and go to sleep. Some parents set up a day bed or even a twin bed if the master bedroom is large enough.
Both Parents Bedshare
A little less common than the above scenarios, parents with multiple children often end up in this circumstance. Often the children are of different genders, or different ages and therefore have different bed times. Mom and dad each take a kid and bedshare. That may look like both parents being in a child’s bed, or one pair is in the parent’s bed and another pair is in a guest or child’s bed.
This sleeping arrangement may be different from night to night. Basically, wherever is easiest that night is what the family rolls with.
Parents Sleep Alone, But Not With Kids
This arrangement tends to be the one that parents are most squeamish about admitting. There seems to be a sense of shame in admitting that they do not share a “marital bed.” There are a variety of reasons for parents sleeping either on their own sleep surfaces, or even in their own separate bedrooms, and it is rarely because of a lack in martial intimacy. Some of the reasons include:
- Someone gets up earlier or goes to bed later than the other and they don’t want to disturb their partner’s sleep.
- Medical condition disrupts sleep (snoring, CPAP machines, restless leg syndrome, IBS, pregnancy).
- One person likes to sleep with the TV on, and the other doesn’t.
- Mattress preferences are different.
As you can see, there is no one way for families to get a good night of rest. Each family does what works the best for them and there should be no shame in that. Parents have a hard enough time getting restful sleep without worrying about whether they will be judged for how they get their 8 hours. So, let’s judge each other a little less, and accept each other, and our potentially differing family sleep habits, a little more.