Thursday, 17 May 2012

More American Dogs Get to Co-sleep Than Babies

One of the basic principles of attachment parenting is "safe sleep," meaning that a loving parent attends to his or her child's emotional and physical needs at night as well as during the day. Many attachment-minded families find that sleeping together with their baby is the best way to accomplish this. However, the vast majority of American parents choose to put their children in cribs in separate rooms at night. A surprising number of dog owners, on the other hand, allow their dogs to sleep with them and report that they, and their dogs, enjoy it. It's a dog's life – just not for babies.

I believe the very first time I considered co-sleeping of any kind, I was thinking of dogs. I was eight years old, and our family dog was obviously ill, whining in pain. My parents chained him up outside so that he couldn't run away. Before bed, I went out to visit him and was frightened to see and hear him suffering, but I wanted to be with him. My parents made me go to bed, and the dog was dead by morning. I still hate knowing that he was in pain and all alone during that awful night.

When I was ten, we brought home a new puppy. Mom locked her downstairs in the mudroom and put down newspaper in case she peed. We went to our beds (separate ones) that night to the sound of ceaseless crying and yelping. Mom explained that the puppy was used to sleeping with her litter mates and that she was lonely. This was the first of many times that I begged to be allowed to have our dog sleep with me in my room. I was told the puppy would get used to her new surroundings eventually, and that we had to leave her on her own. This was a normal part of growing up for every dog.

As an adult, I learned that dog trainers seem to agree that sleeping together (at least in the same room) is important for bonding with one's animal, and the practice is far from rare. As Cesar Milan, the "Dog Whisperer," notes, "It is perfectly natural for a dog to sleep with other pack members, and it is also a powerful way to bond with your dog." A 2007 survey by the American Pet Products Association of over 2500 American pet owners found that a whopping 43% of dogs sleep in bed with their owners. When I adopted my current dog, she wanted to sleep with me and I obliged. This was the first time in my life that I slept with another living creature. I loved it.

After I read about safe infant-parent bed-sharing, it seemed natural to me to sleep with our baby, too. What else would we do? Let our dog cuddle with us in bed while our infant cried in the other room? If sleeping together is so beneficial for bonding with a pet, why wouldn't it be great for bonding with baby, too? However, a 2006 study in Kentucky found that only 15% of infants and toddlers aged two weeks to two years sleep with their parents. Is it possible that Americans are better in tune emotionally with their pets than their babies?

I wanted to do anything and everything that could be helpful to the breastfeeding relationship, including bed-sharing. What we discovered, however, is that co-sleeping is just as important for Ian's relationship with Jacob as it is for mine. I am fortunate to spend hours and hours nursing and wearing our baby during the day since I am the one who gets to stay home from work. Someone once asked Ian if he is jealous of our breastfeeding relationship, and he responded with an emphatic "No! I get to co-sleep!" Every night, all three of us cuddle together. Especially when he was younger and easier to move aroud in his sleep, I'd nurse Jacob down and then slide him over to Ian who would tuck his arm around him without even waking up. This way Ian got his fair share of skin-to-skin time and felt well-connected to our baby.

Nowadays our dog frequently snoozes by herself on the couch (maybe because the baby wakes up so much at night!) and then joins us for snuggling in the morning. But if there's a thunder storm, she always ends up in our bed, and from time to time, she chooses to be with us from the start of the night. I have no doubt that Jacob's nighttime preferences will change, too, as he grows and develops. One thing is for certain though: our bed will always be open to whoever needs it.


  1. This is beautiful. You have an incredibly lucky little boy. And a great partner - not all breastfeeding parents have such caring partners.

    Oh ya, and I'll bet your dog is happy too :)

  2. I'd be curious to know what study that was? I also have a hard time believing, particularly being in KY and working professionally with new parents for the last 13yrs, that only 15% sleep with their babies. Most of the parents I know have their babies in their beds at least at some point most nights. I, too, think it's so very important and beneficial.

    I love that your dogs were what made you start to think about cosleeping :)

    1. The co-sleeping study was this one:^ Montgomery-Downs, H.E. Sleep habits and risk factors for sleep-disordered breathing in infants and young toddlers in Louisville, Kentucky. Sleep Med. 2006 Apr; 7(3):211–9. Epub 2006 Mar 27.

    2. I found some better stats: A National Center for Health Statistics survey from 1991 to 1999 found that 25% of American families always, or almost always, slept with their baby in bed, 42% slept with their baby "sometimes," and 32% never bed-shared with their baby.[40]"

  3. I never thought about how many people sleep with their pets compared to their babies--great post.

    We came across a conflict with this when we had our son. The problem was, our ancient cat had always slept with us (read *on* us) & we were worried about having the cat sleeping on top of the baby. If we didn't let the cat in the bedroom at night, he'd yowl at the top of his siamese lungs for ages. We ended up having the baby in a bassinet beside the bed for the first four months, then baby went into his crib in the room beside ours.

    Kitty died at the ripe old age of 19 last summer. Since then, we've been doing 'on-demand' co-sleeping. When my son wakes up at night we just bring him to bed with us & he spends the rest of the night there. Lately, that's been 25-50% of the time, because I think the two-year-old molars are coming in.

    I guess it all depends on the individual animal, but I'd be curious to know how other people managed co-sleeping babies AND pets. Did you have any worries about the dog being there too when your little guy was a newborn?

    1. We did worry in the beginning. At first we didn't let the dog sleep with us. When she started to show signs of truly accepting Jacob as a family member, then we allowed her back on the bed. We have a king size though, so it is relatively easy for us to make sure that the dog isn't too close to baby. Usually the dog is at the foot of the bed and baby is snuggling at my chest.

  4. Thank you for putting it so eloquently.

    We found that our cats were much happier when we let them into our room at night, even if they didn't sleep on the bed.

    When people asked me if I was worried about co-sleeping with my Little Prince, I always mentioned that I never rolled over on my cats, so I was pretty sure I wasn't going to roll over on the baby. One year later, haven't rolled on the baby yet. I have been pinched, kicked, rolled on, etc BY the baby..but that's another story. :)