New moms already have plenty to be stressed about.
A brand new human to take care of requires constant attention - the crying, the sleep deprivation, the unending worry about whether the baby is sick or just grumpy.
But now a new study from Penn State, published in the journal Infant and Child Development, found parents who co-sleep with their babies for longer than six months report even higher levels of stress, depression and feelings of being judged for their parenting.
Co-sleeping, where a parent (or both parents) sleep in the same bed with their infant, is already a subject of intense controversy.
Relatively common in countries outside the U.S., the practice is sometimes looked on with disdain by those who consider it risky for the child, Douglas Teti, department head and professor of human development and family studies at Penn State said in a press release.
There are a couple of reasons why. Co-sleeping has been discouraged by the American Academy of Pediatrics due to a possible link to sudden infant death syndrome. Others worry about the possibility of smothering or hurting the infant accidentally, which is why the University of Notre Dame’s Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory suggests using a co-sleeping attachment or allowing the baby to sleep in the same room, but on a different, stable surface.
The most recent study didn’t look specifically at the risk of harm to babies. Instead, the scientists looked at the mothers. The researchers followed 103 new moms over their baby’s first year of life and analyzed their sleeping patterns.
“We found that about 73 percent of families co-slept at the one-month point. That dropped to about 50 percent by three months, and by six months, it was down to about 25 percent,” Teti said in a release. “Most babies that were in co-sleeping arrangements in the beginning were moved out into solitary sleep by six months.”
But those moms who still co-slept with their babies after that cut-off reported feeling more depressed, stressed and judged for their parenting choices.
A lot more, in fact. Mothers reported feeling more than 75 percent more depressed than mothers who had moved their babies to another room by that point, and more worried about the quality of their baby’s sleep. They also felt they were being criticized more than moms who had stopped co-sleeping.
The study backed up a previous Penn State study published in 2016, which found mothers who co-slept with their babies longer than six months had more fragmented personal sleep, less marital satisfaction and felt worse about how they were doing as parents, reported The New York Times.
Teti said it may not be the co-sleeping itself that’s causing the stress, but the feeling among persistent co-sleepers that they’re doing something wrong.
“We definitely saw that the persistent co-sleepers -- the moms that were still co-sleeping after six months -- were the ones who seemed to get the most criticism,” Teti said. “Additionally, they also reported greater levels of worry about their baby's sleep, which makes sense when you're getting criticized about something that people are saying you shouldn't be doing, that raises self-doubt. That's not good for anyone.”
For now, Teti says it’s perfectly acceptable to co-sleep as long as everyone is on the same page about the decision to do so. That will defuse some stress and any potential arguments. It’s some of the same advice the University of Notre Dame’s sleep researchers give too.
“If bedsharing, ideally, both parents should agree and feel comfortable with the decision. Each bed-sharer should agree that he or she is equally responsible for the infant and acknowledge before sleeping that they are aware that the infant is present in the bed space,” the Notre Dame researchers wrote.
Teti wrote that parents need to feel good in order to be good parents for their children - and that includes feeling comfortable with sleeping arrangements.
“Co-sleeping needs to work well for everyone, and that includes getting adequate sleep,” Teti said in the release. “To be the best parent you can be, you have to take care of yourself, and your child benefits as a result.”