Is Co-sleeping and Lax Parenting to Blame for Your Child's Sleep Problems?

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

Do you co-sleep with your child? If you do, and your child has difficulties with sleep, you may want to re-think and consider moving your child out of your bed.

A study published in Cancer Medicine finds that co-sleeping and other parenting strategies are associated with sleep disturbance in children. The 73 children in the study aged between two and six were divided into two groups. 43 children were being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The other 30 had no major medical illness

Parents of all the children were asked about their child's sleep behavior and their own parenting practice, assessed through the use of questionnaires and surveys. Some assessments and scales included:

  • My child needs a parent present to fall asleep

  • I comfort my child immediately when he/she cries

  • I am the kind of parent that lets my child do what he/she wants

  • I co-sleep with my child for part/all of the night

  • My child has a bedtime routine

Perhaps unsurprisingly, parents of those being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia reported more sleep disturbances in their children and significantly more lax parenting styles. After controlling for illness status, researchers found that most parenting styles had no significant association with child sleep problems.

However, one did: co-sleeping. Researchers found that co-sleeping was significantly associated with child sleep difficulties.

Although the primary purpose of this study was to investigate sleep problems in children undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the fact it used a control group of healthy children means the results should be of interest to all parents.

The effect of co-sleeping on a child's sleep

This isn't the first study to find that co-sleeping is associated with poorer sleep quality in children.

A 2008 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that co-sleeping, giving a child food/drink when waking at night, and comforting a child out of bed after waking at night were associated with more bad dreams, less time asleep, and more time taken to fall asleep.

Why may co-sleeping harm a child's sleep?

It's thought that co-sleeping may prevent a child from falling into the deepest stages of sleep and can result in more frequent awakenings. Furthermore, the fact a parent is present when a child wakes can make it more difficult for a child to fall back to sleep.

Children who regularly co-sleep with a parent may also develop a dependence on the parent to help them fall or stay asleep.

The importance of a sleep routine

It's important to note that this study did not conclude that co-sleeping is the cause of sleep issues in children. Parents may choose to co-sleep to help relieve sleep issues in their children, which may explain why the study found an association between co-sleeping and poorer sleep quality.

This article isn't meant to be a judgement on co-sleeping. There is no scientific consensus on whether co-sleeping is a negative or a positive parenting choice.

What we should be aware of is the fact that short-term actions to help a child sleep can easily become entrenched habits -- and these may end up harming a child's sleep over the longer term.

Regardless of whether or not you choose to co-sleep with your children, it is always a good idea to practice good sleep hygiene and keep your child on a regular sleep routines.

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free sleep training for insomnia. His online course uses cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia to help participants fall asleep and stay asleep. More than 4,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.