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When Your Child Sleeps in Your Bed

It's 1 a.m. Suddenly, the bedroom door bangs open and the small, sturdy figure of my 5-year-old daughter stands framed in the doorway. She hesitates a moment, as if not quite sure where her sleepy feet have led her. Then, like a heat-seeking missile homing in on its target, she launches herself across the room and burrows into our bed. Again. Moriah has been making her way to our room every night for more than a year now. The youngest of my three children, she used to be our model sleeper. Then one night, something scary jarred her awake. I foolishly brought her into bed with us to console her, and that was our undoing.

For the next several months, she told us she couldn't stay in her room because "the neighbor's dogs outside might come through my wall." Then she was worried about monsters. Now she cuts to the chase: "I don't want to be alone."

When I was growing up, my mother and father had no problem making their bed off-limits to us kids. Today, most parents I know can't keep their kids out. Some simply endure the kicks and elbow jabs. Some play nightly musical beds. One couple I know gave up and moved all of the family's mattresses onto the floor of their room.

Maybe this is just a reflection of the permissive parenting in San Francisco, where I live -- at least that's what a friend in Iowa tells me. In her circle, moms and dads tuck their kids in, kiss them good-night, and everyone stays put until morning.

It's not as if either my husband or I ever intended to have a family bed. We scoffed at the notion that a family bed was "natural"; poverty, not preference, is what squeezes families together at night in many less-developed parts of the world, we decided. Much as I like cuddling with my kids, I also like my space. Indeed, some nights, our queen-size mattress barely feels big enough for two.

Over and over during the past year, we've hatched schemes to eject Moriah. We tried having her share a room downstairs with one of her older brothers. Still, she woke in the wee hours and padded back to us. Next plan: taking turns in her room in a sleeping bag on the floor. Sore shoulders and backs brought an end to that idea. Then we made a cozy nest of pads and pillows on the floor of our room, so Moriah could be near us, though not actually in our bed. But once I lay down, she flung herself across my legs and began wailing, "I want to be with Mommy!" The only way I could get her to settle down was by holding tightly onto her sweaty little hand. By morning, I couldn't bend my elbow.

The thing is, it takes a lot of energy to deal with sleep problems. And when you're exhausted from dealing with them, it's hard to muster the energy to be steadfast. All you want is sleep. Nothing feels as important as shutting your eyes -- not some lesson in independence, not the chance to talk with your mate, not even sex.

Still, my husband, Eric, and I were a whole lot firmer with our first two. As new parents eager to do the right thing, we wasted no time getting Eli, who's now 12, into his own bed. The books said babies need to learn to fall asleep on their own. So we steeled ourselves against our son's plaintive cries and, as advised, went back into his room only to offer quick pats on the back. We hung equally tough with Isaac, now 10.

Some might say we've caved in to the numeric disadvantage that occurs when you have a third child. I think my husband and I are simply at a different point in our lives than we were with our sons. We were six years into raising kids by the time Moriah came along. We had our experience to call on, that accrual of decisions that gradually teaches us what works and, more important, what kind of parenting feels right.

My Iowa friend suggests that I may be holding my daughter back by giving in to her every night. Some experts, she warns, would say I'm delaying Moriah's independence to satisfy my own desire to savor every last sweet drop of her childhood. But I watch my daughter for signs of insecurity or evidence that she is overly attached. I see her proudly swing across the monkey bars at school and fearlessly race ahead of me on her scooter on our walks. I notice her readily making conversation with visiting grown-ups and easily reach out to make new friends. She's doing just fine, I decide. I'm not holding her back; I'm helping her move forward. That reassuring togetherness at night is exactly the fuel she needs to strike out confidently on her own by day. This is just that rare moment in our lives when my daughter's needs and my own coincide.

As much as I've complained about Moriah's nightly forays, I know why I'm unable to get her out of my bed: I don't really want to. She is, after all, my last child, still my baby. When my eldest, Eli, was her age, I couldn't imagine a life beyond the nursery-school gates. Now Eli is on the cusp of adolescence, and I know how blindingly fast the years pass. I understand now, in a way that I didn't with my sons, how brief this time of delicious late-night snuggles really is.

So I've stopped fighting it when the door bursts open at night and she scoots in next to me. She wraps her arms around my arm, presses close as if trying to get back under my skin. She gives me a quick kiss. "Hi, sweetie," I say, kissing her back on her moist forehead. Then I roll over and go back to sleep.

Infant Bed-Sharing Alert

Preschoolers aren't the only kids snoozing next to a grown-up at night -- many babies are too. In fact, the percentage of infants sleeping in their parents' bed more than doubled between 1993 and 2000 -- from 5.5 percent to 12.8 percent -- according to a new study. However, bed sharing puts infants at risk of accidental suffocation, and the American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to be aware of this hazard. Babies should sleep on their back with no soft bedding around or on top of them, and they should never be put to sleep on a sofa, a water bed, or any other soft surface.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the April 2003 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.