By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. What is your opinion on a toddler sleeping in the same bed as a single parent?

A. Throughout history, in families everywhere, parents have shared beds with children – now called co-sleeping.

In the United States, co-sleeping is on the rise. Mothers and fathers who work long days miss their children. Nighttime hours are among the precious few that many families can be together again. Co-sleeping is a way to reunite.

Proponents say that it promotes attachment, and that it is more practical and less fatiguing for parents who must feed a crying baby every few hours.

Mothers who are breastfeeding often find bed-sharing particularly convenient. Studies have found that babies cry less and mature into healthy, respectful and obedient toddlers in cultures where bed-sharing is the norm.

But parents should be aware of potential risks.

Once parents allow a child to share their bed, it is likely to be the child who determines when he or she is old enough to get out. If parents try to reclaim their bed for themselves, the child may keep getting out of her own bed and coming into their room, or screaming to let them know she’s not ready to stop co-sleeping.

Weary parents who’ve been bed-sharing all along may give in.

But parents need privacy. Their relationship is often put on hold when work and children take up the available energy. Cutting this corner can be costly later – for parents and children. You mention a single parent, but the parent’s single status may not last as long as the child wants to share the bed.

In recent years, a new medical objection to co-sleeping was identified: Studies reported a correlation between bed-sharing and an increased risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). A bed crowded with blankets, stuffed animals or sleeping people can compromise a baby’s ability to breathe. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a policy statement that bed-sharing may be hazardous. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/10/12/peds.2011-2284.full.pdf

However, the risk of SIDS peaks between 2 and 3 months of age, and decreases significantly after the first four months. A toddler may be in the clear.

An alternative to having a baby in a parent’s bed is to place her in her own crib in the parent’s room. Recent studies show that the risk for SIDS is lower for infants under 6 months who sleep in their parents’ room but in a crib.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.