Every parent knows how it feels to wake up in the middle of the night with a young child stumbling into bed.
But why would children want to sleep with us? And why are they so reluctant to sleep alone?
Children sleeping in their own beds separately from adults is relatively recent in human history. Historically, sleep has been done together as a family or social unit.
Medieval records of sleep habits in Europe date back as early as the 5th century and show that sleep was a social and communal practice, with visitors and passing travelers welcomed into bedrooms and many It was not uncommon for families to sleep in the same bed.
Co-sleeping with other people was often seen as a way to increase personal security, conserve resources, and generate warmth. Bed companion choices reflected pre-existing social and community relationships and structures, as few could afford an independent sleeping space.
As society progressed, personal sleeping spaces became more common around the 15th century and were seen as indicators of wealth and prosperity that emerged in many Western countries. Societal guidelines regarding who sleeps with whom have changed over time, and this continued to reflect widespread shifts in sociocultural and familial values regarding belonging, identity, care, intimacy, and independence.
Biologically, our instinct as mammals is to co-sleep with our children for warmth, survival, priming and attachment. Sleeping in close proximity (defined as “close enough to exchange at least two sensory stimuli such as touch, smell, movement, sight, and sound”) is the norm for most mammals. Human infants are the most immature mammals at birth and require relatively more nursing than other mammals.
Sociocultural values help determine who sleeps with whom. we are social beings. Being together, being accepted and loved is essential for development and well-being and for understanding our place in the world.
Even though separate sleeping spaces are more available than ever before, the vast majority of adults sometimes share beds with partners, children and even pets. Children may try to sleep with adults during particularly vulnerable times (such as at night) because of separation anxiety or feelings of helplessness from caregivers. The same attachment urge may also bring some parents closer to their child at night. Being together is also an instinctive act of parents that makes their children feel safe and protected.
However, bed-sharing doesn’t always suit the realities of modern life, such as having parents who need a good night’s sleep for work the next day. If you don’t have to share your bed, why should you? We also know how important sleep is to your health, and this includes adults. Therefore, co-sleeping may not be in everyone’s best health interest.
There are many biological, cultural, historical and scientific reasons why children seek caregivers to sleep with them at night. But while most young children may prefer to sleep with their parents in a big bed if they have the choice, it’s not always the answer for a good night’s sleep.