Co-Sleeping: Fostering Independence

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By Tracy G. Cassels

It’s no big secret that I am a HUGE fan of co-sleeping.  Outside of breastfeeding, I think it is the single most wonderful bonding activity you can do for your baby when it works for everyone.  And yet, when you tell someone you do it, it raises eyebrows and leads to some generally snarky remarks.  People usually start with a look of shock and then proceed to ask when we plan on stopping, as if it’s some nasty habit like smoking or letting our daughter pee on the floor in front of company (although we’ve been guilty of the latter too, but that seems to come with toilet learning).  If you probe these people for why they feel it is such a bad habit, it nearly always comes down to the fact that they believe that co-sleeping will make babies less independent, more needy, and, by proxy, kind of useless later on in life.  After all, we all want our kids to go out there and tackle the world, and if you’ve got some kid that’s too attached to mom and dad, how can s/he go out there and be her own person?  And co-sleeping is seen as one of those things that makes kids dependent on mom and dad forever.  Right?  Well, if there were evidence that that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this, now would I?  No, and in fact the reality is rather strikingly different to what most people believe.

Here we go… Children who co-sleep tend to be either as or MORE independent than children who sleep alone.  For some reason, people started believing that babies needed to made more independent and that learning to sleep on your own right from day one is one way to get that going.  First off, it’s ridiculous to think that babies need to be independent – they can’t be, they’re babies!  They don’t even know they exist for the first year or so, so how can they be independent any earlier than that?  However, as children age, they do (luckily) become more independent, and at that time, it’s the children who co-slept (or continue to co-sleep) come out as the fearless go-getters, while children who were left to be “independent” as babies tend to be more shy, anxious, and fearful of the world.  (I must admit there’s a part of me that just loves this paradox because it’s completely intuitive when you think about things from a baby’s perspective.  It’s just that most people don’t – they think of babies as adults, with adult thoughts and beliefs, just on a smaller scale.)

Part of the explanation for this paradox comes down to attachment—babies who co-sleep tend to (though it is definitely not a guarantee) have better attachments with mom, and research has shown that children who are securely attached also explore more and are more independent than their insecurely attached peers (Mercer, 2006).  Now, it’s always worth noting that it may be that parents co-sleep because they’re responsive and thus co-sleeping on its own might not cause children to be more securely attached and/or independent.  However, there are other reasons to believe it actually does promote independence on its own.

It all comes down to hormones.  As Dr. Sears points out, nighttime is one of the most stressful times for a baby.  The darkness and quiet in a house are actually quite scary to young infants who have been used to constant white noise in the womb (e.g., mom’s heartbeat) and a feeling of being held tightly.  Thus being placed away from individuals (and without human touch) increases stress responses in infants.  Contact between mom and baby at any time of day helps reduce stress for baby by releasing oxytocin, a hormone that has been known to promote contact and loving behaviour (a.k.a. the “cuddle” hormone), especially when there is skin-to-skin contact (e.g., Uvnas Moberg, 2003).  Co-sleeping specifically has also been found to reduce baby’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Waynforth, 2007).  So by co-sleeping, you provide your infant with a boost in hormones that cause pleasure for baby and are related to increased bonding as well as reducing hormones associated with stress.

But how do these hormones contribute to independence, you ask?  Think about yourself and your own reactions in various situations.  We’ve all had days where we’re super-stressed and feel like pulling our hair out.  On those days, how likely are you to want to go out and explore new places, meet new people, or try something new?  If you’re in the realm of what we’d call “normal” and are being honest, you’ll probably say, “Not likely”.  Instead you’d ask for a glass (or bottle) of wine in a cozy, secure place away from people and other potential stressors because avoidance is part of the stress reaction – stick your head in the sand and hope whatever it is that stresses you out goes away.  This is due to the fact that stress is related to fear and thus they both activate the fight-or-flight response, albeit to different degrees.  So a baby who feels stress regularly is going to seek out safe and secure places and typically want to remain there.  Just like we do as adults.  Now think of times when you feel happy, relaxed, and calm.  During those times are you willing to try new things?  Meet new people?  Go new places?  Yes, because that’s the mindset we need in order to go out and explore the world.  So a baby who has lower cortisol levels and higher levels of oxytocin is more likely to be willing to get out there and see what’s going on with the world on a regular basis.

Another reason for the co-sleeping/independence link is that co-sleeping engenders a feeling of security and safety due to immediate responsiveness during critical periods.  All newborns have a flailing (or startle) reflex that occurs while they sleep.  (For those of you without newborns, up until about 3 months of age, while sleeping, your baby‘s arms and legs will flail as if falling.  That is the startle reflex in action.)  If your child is being held or is close (like in a three-sided crib), it’s very easy to stop the flailing and calm him down before he wakes up and panics.  However, if you aren’t holding your child, that reflex will wake your baby up in a panic.  Cortisol is now running through his system and it will take much more to calm him down.  This is what many parents go through at night when they’re awakened by a screaming baby.  When this happens, what has this baby learned from the experience?  That the world isn’t very safe and that one should always be somewhat on alert.  When your stress levels are constantly peaking, you learn to be vigilant and constantly a little on edge to keep yourself away from potential dangers as much as possible.  Frankly I’m amazed these kids aren’t clamoring to get back in the womb given their welcome to the world.

Babies who co-sleep learn something very different.  Because they are immediately touched and comforted when they experience the startling reflex (and hence they typically don’t even wake up), they learn that the world is safe and secure for them.  Someone will be there to take care of them when they need help.  When you know you’ve got a safety net, it’s a lot easier to try walking across the tightrope than it is if you don’t know whether you’ll be caught or not if you fall.  And because you start to trust that there is a safety net there (called mom and dad), you start to be more willing to take risks and try new things.  So by co-sleeping, you’re providing your infant with the foundations of a strong sense of security and long-lasting feelings of safety and comfort.  You are also altering your infant’s hormonal balance for the better—reducing negative hormones (i.e., cortisol) and promoting positive ones (i.e., oxytocin).  And to top it all off, you’re improving the chances of your child having a secure attachment to you which has all sorts of wonderful outcomes.  I guess it kind of explains why we evolved to co-sleep[1].

So when you think about how your want your child to be raised and what kind of person you want your kid to be—Outgoing or inhibited?  Adventurous or shy?  Fearful or fearless?—think about what you’re teaching your infant about the world through your actions towards baby.  And know that one way you can give your child a safe foundation is to sleep with him or her – your child will thank you in the long run.

[1] There are certain dos and don’ts when it comes to co-sleeping.  See the article on that very topic if you would like to know more as there are certain things one can do that makes co-sleeping a dangerous thing.  Mind you, most of these things (e.g., getting drunk) are pretty self-explanatory so you should be able to figure it out, but there are a few surprises.  But I’ve written it all out there for you.  Just in case.

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  1. Amy says

    While it doesn’t foster independence, that doesn’t mean it’s not doing something to people that the culture values. It must be, or the practice wouldn’t persist. My guess is, leaving babies alone functions to establish as “obvious” the worldview and assumptions about other people that are expected of subjects in individualist cultures. That self-contained and somewhat adversarial “it’s me against the world”, “every man for himself” thing. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing I guess depends on how you feel about individualism, no? Co-sleeping, on the other hand, fosters the sense of interconectedness that’s more typical of collectivist cultures… And that does, as a rough rule of thumb, seem to be how the child rearing norms break down: collectivist cultures co-sleeping, individualist cultures cot sleeping. The slippage, I suspect, comes from the fact that enculturated members of an individualist culture take that sense of deep and abiding isolation as a given, as obvious and unproblematic, and so that sense of unsupported singularity is what they think “independence” is — in which case, solo-sleeping is a great way to foster it.


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