July 18, 2011 -- Toddlers who share a bed with their parents do not face increased risks for behavioral or learning problems at age 5, according to new research.
The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against bed sharing during infancy because it may increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, but little is known about the risks of bed sharing by toddlers after age 1.
Bed sharing or co-sleeping is common in many countries and cultures, but in the U.S. parents often receive mixed messages about the practice.
"The idea that bed sharing may be bad for toddlers is mostly based on folklore," says study researcher R. Gabriela Barajas of Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. "From what we see, there is no additional risk of behavioral and cognitive problems among toddlers who share a bed with their parents."
The new findings appear in the August issue of Pediatrics.
Checking for Behavioral Problems
Children from 944 low-income families were assessed at ages 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. While children who shared a bed between the ages of 1 and 3 were more likely to have behavioral or cognitive problems at age 5, these issues were deemed to be due to factors other than bed sharing, such as socio-demographic factors and maternal education levels.
Close to 50% of families said they had shared a bed at least once; 73% of the families in the study were living below the poverty line.
The study did not look at why the children were sleeping in their parents' beds in the first place, which can be key information, experts tell WebMD.
Nanci Yuan, MD, medical director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., says that poor sleep, which results in bed sharing, may be the first sign of certain developmental disorders.
In these cases, she says, "Parents will report that their child was never a good sleeper and they had to sleep with the kid."
Why Toddlers Share Parents' Bed
The risks associated with bed sharing depend largely on why your child is in your bed. This study looked at lower socioeconomic groups who may frequently share beds due to financial reasons.
"In some higher socioeconomic groups, co-bedding can be a parenting-style issue and in others, it may be trouble-shooting a sleep problem," Yuan says.
"If it is because you feel like it is bonding and your child is otherwise healthy, growing, and thriving, then bed sharing is not associated with cognitive and behavioral problems," she says.
Michelle Berkovits, PhD, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, agrees. "We would want to know if the family is bed sharing because they are choosing to do it, are they forced into it, and whether both parents are on the same page."
Sometimes parents like co-bedding but feel that they have to stop because of the stigma associated with it, or sometimes one parent is comfortable with bed sharing and the other is not.
It can be a red flag of other behavioral problems if bed sharing is not by the parents' choice or mandated by economic circumstances, she says.
"This study provides reassurance that if the parents are choosing to bed share and are comfortable with it, they can continue to do it," she says.