I think we all know how obsessed we are in our culture with sleep. Although infants and children bear the brunt of the worry and obsession, it extends into adulthood as well. There are countless studies on the benefits of getting enough sleep and getting good sleep. A good sleep helps us cognitively (focusing, attending to information, learning), it helps our motor skills, and psychologically we’re in a much better frame of mind when we’ve had a good sleep
There are even relationships between certain sleep disorders, such as insomnia, and emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression. So we have good reason to think about and worry about sleep, but in all this worry and obsession and research, sleep is continuously viewed as a solitary activity. It is something that affects only one person. And why not? I mean, you sleep on your own, your body and brain slow down and you lose conscious awareness of what is around you. Yet we are ignoring something incredibly valuable by thinking of sleep only as a solitary activity.
In many ways, sleep is a social activity and is hugely important to our social well-being. Though we sleep alone in our society, this is not how we have evolved, and we see this when we return to shared sleep when we marry or live with another person. As soon as you have someone you plan to spend your life with, you are expected to sleep with them. In fact, in our society, isn’t not sleeping with your partner a sign that something might be wrong? Or rather someone has done something wrong? The stereotypical husband sleeping on the couch stems from this very real fact that something special occurs in the bedroom (and it’s not just sex). (Note there are very valid reasons people sleep separately, but I’m talking about the perceptions here and often the separation during disagreements.)
So what is it about sleep that’s social?
When we sleep, we are at our most vulnerable. Thinking evolutionarily, sleep is one of our most dangerous times – we are open to attack, unable to defend ourselves – and as such it should make us very leery. Imagine how well you would sleep in the woods on your own with no one to keep a lookout. Probably not well. Despite our modern surroundings, this inkling that something is not right remains. We have locks, alarms, etc. that serve as our protection whereas it used to be other people. And we typically don’t sleep well if we don’t have these protections and we’re alone because that instinct to preserve ourselves kicks in and we sleep with the metaphorical one eye open.
But having just anyone around doesn’t help things. Being as vulnerable as we are in sleep, we need someone we trust to be close to us. Most of us wouldn’t pick up a stranger, invite them into our homes, and sleep soundly that night with our doors wide open. The close-knit communities of tribal societies mean everyone is trusted and the group looks out for each other. Depending on where you live and the level of community you have, you will probably see more or less unlocked doors at night and I would guess more or less sleep problems too. When we send our loved ones out of the bedroom because we’re mad, we are saying to them that we don’t trust them. And the return to the bedroom is the return of trust. Trust is integral to our sleeping arrangements, and without the feeling that we can trust that we are safe, we encounter sleep problems.
The other aspect of sleep that we ignore is love. Though love and trust typically go hand in hand, they are separate emotions with separate etiologies. But when we sleep next to someone, there is a level of physical intimacy (not sex) that exists that builds bonds and creates feelings of closeness. At the most basic level, there are hormonal changes from the release of oxytocin that we get when we are close to someone. These hormones help us fall in love with our partners each and every night we’re next to them. I do believe some of this is also built upon the mutual trust that has to exist in order to sleep next to each other. Despite the fact that we aren’t actually doing anything with our partners while we sleep, that simply proximity helps us love them more. Distance doesn’t make the heart grow fonder – it can strain relationships and takes far more work than when people are physically close, both at the larger level of living apart and at the micro level of being apart within the same house.
The flip side is also worth considering. Think of how your feelings change when your partner interrupts your sleep. When one person snores, or works strange hours and wakes the other partner up every time they get into bed, or is too loud getting ready while the other partner is sleeping. There are many things that a partner can do that interrupts our sleep, and importantly it affects our relationship with them. Sleep problems affect our relationships with our partners, just as problems with our partners can also affect our sleep. Importantly, it isn’t just your partner’s behaviour in sleep that can affect the love you share, but any event that affects your sleep. And though the mechanisms are unknown, I would assume that the interruption of oxytocin would hurt the bonding we feel and that the constant waking would signal our primal brains that we aren’t safe, leading to trust issues as well. The relationship between sleep and love is strong because sleep isn’t only a solitary activity, in fact, one could say it is actually quite social at its core.
Implications for Kids
Because we talk about parenting here, I can’t help but bring this up with respect to infants and children. Our children, infants in particular, live in a state of needing to trust someone to survive and nighttime is a particularly difficult time for them. The darkness and lack of noise tweak their instincts and they are biologically designed to try and ensure their survival. Sleeping alone does not help them. This doesn’t mean bed-sharing (though it can), but room-sharing provides infants with implicit knowledge that someone is there with the added noises, particularly breathing noises that other family members make, and the much more immediate response to arousals. In our concern for “teaching” our children how to sleep, we have ignored that sleeping comfortably requires that they trust us implicitly to look out for them when they are most vulnerable. Leaving them alone, oftentimes to cry, is not sending that message.
But infant sleep also has effects on the love front. First, we have to accept that the sleep problems generally associated with new children can affect our relationships. Although this is generally known, the solution thus far has been to tell parents to sleep train their children. To shut them away in another room and leave them alone. And yet, if we accept that this behaviour would affect our relationship with our partner, what makes us think it won’t affect our relationship with our child? The closeness of co-sleeping means that infants and children benefit from the same feelings of love and bonding that exist for our relationships with our partners and this is key when they are infants as it will allow them to grow up knowing they are loved all the time. But even older children need this closeness at times, and we seem to recognize this in extreme circumstances. Children who’ve had nightmares are usually (though not always) welcomed into the parental bed to help them feel safe and secure and loved and thus, to sleep. But it doesn’t have to happen only when children are scared. And it doesn’t have to just be parental closeness. For ages, children at a certain age shared rooms or sleeping space, providing love and comfort for each other. Our obsession with kids needing their own space is more of a reflection of our own desires than many children’s. Kids want to be together, they want to be close to friends, siblings, parents, etc. and allowing kids to share a room with their siblings can give them that sense of love and trust that we want our kids to have for each other.
You can also continue to do the family bed until your children are ready to move into their own room (with or without siblings). Without siblings to share a room with (yet), this is the option we have chosen for our daughter. And it has had an unexpected benefit that I never foresaw but would never give up. Let me start by saying that I believe we all love our children unconditionally, and that we hope to ensure that they experience our love in that manner. But it is very hard to do that on a daily basis. To not get frustrated and make a judgmental comment or to withhold our love when we’re angry. We all try not to do these things, but oftentimes we fall short because we’re human. However, with the family bed, we get to end every single day with this unconditional love. Every night I crawl into bed when it’s bedtime for my daughter and we cuddle as she nurses. I tell her I love her and she nods every single time. Sometimes there’s a story, sometimes not, it’s up to her. But she falls asleep in my arms, knowing she is loved, no matter what has happened that day. No matter how frustrated I got, no matter how many tears were shed, no matter how many regrets I may have had about the mistakes I made that day, it all disappears when we go to sleep. She trusts me and she feels loved. And isn’t that what sleep is all about?
If you are in need of individualized parenting help with sleep or other areas, I offer science-based, gentle, and attachment-focused help via email, Skype, or phone. You can find out more here.
 Troxel WM, Robles TF, Hall M, Buysse DJ. Marital quality and the marital bed: examining the covariation between relationship quality and sleep. Sleep Medicine Reviews 2007; 11: 389-404.