Why moms who co-sleep with their babies past 6 months might feel more depressed than solo sleepers

Sleep health starts early and touches every family member tucked in.

Sleep health starts early and touches every family member tucked in

(Credit: Getty Images)

Any human who has reproduced will tell you that the joys of parenthood are aggressively peppered with mood shattering obstacles – not the least of which is extreme sleep deprivation. Pediatric medicine has been taking a closer look at the intersection of sleep health and emotional health in new moms and unsurprisingly, there's a strong link. But that link may have more to do with where the baby sleeps than how much.

A recent study published in Infant and Child Development found that mothers who were still co-sleeping (sharing a room or a bed) with their baby after 6 months reported feeling more depressed than mothers who had already made the transition to separate sleeping quarters. That discrepancy in mood states wasn't mild: co-sleeping moms self-rated as 76% more depressed than their solo sleeping counterparts. What's more, moms who wanted baby close at hand also felt 16% more judged for their parenting choices around sleeping arrangements.   

Douglas Teti, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State and one of the study's lead authors explains that "in other parts of the world, co-sleeping is considered normal, while here in the U.S., it tends to be frowned upon." One of the reasons for that, says Teti, is the dread surrounding SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It's characterized by the (often medically inexplicable) death in infants younger than a year old and sharing a bed with a parent has been shown to up its risk of incidence. On that note, the study revealed another key find. Moms "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", confirmed Teti.  

Relegating your baby to their own room isn't the immediate solution to assuage moods or escape judgy vibes. Bonding with an infant by sharing a room in those early months remains crucial for the cultivation of sensory stimuli like movement, sound, touch, and even smell says pediatric sleep specialist James McKenna, professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory. McKenna is plain: "to put baby alone in a room and close the door doesn't help baby learn, grow and develop those sensory distinctions." Sharing a space in close quarters builds stronger relationships with mom, dad or any other caregiver and provides learning cues that inform healthy reactions and growth in a brand new little brain.  

Still, Teti suggests that 6 months may not be a bad benchmark for exploring separate sleeping arrangements. He maintains that even when co-sleeping patterns are unfolding at their best they can still cause detrimental and preventable sleep loss for parents.  "If you co-sleep, it is going to disrupt your sleep, and probably Mom's sleep more than Dad's," he says. "So this is something to be careful with if you're not good with chronic sleep debt." And who is, really? "Co-sleeping needs to work well for everyone, and that includes getting adequate sleep. To be the best parent you can be, you have to take care of yourself, and your child benefits as a result."

Sleep health remains important during all stages of life and it's something Canadians struggle with to the tune of 21 billion dollars a year in health care. One salve says science may be to banish the numerous blue-light emitting screen devices that garner our attention, at least around bedtime. They're doing parents and kids exactly zero favours in the sleep department.

Teti says finding a sleep set up that works for everyone under the same roof is key. "Co-sleeping, as long as its done safely, is fine as long as both parents are on board with it. If it's working for everyone, and everyone is okay with it, then co-sleeping is a perfectly acceptable option." The safest co-sleeping set up, experts offer, is baby in a bassinet nearby in its parent's room.

Compellingly, another study showed that depressed mothers actually tended to wake their babies more during the night causing restlessness for both baby and mom. A first line of attack might be making sure your baby is sleeping optimally and there are tricks and tips for that.     

Whatever your family favours as a sleeping arrangement come nighttime says Teti should really be about making sure you, your partner and baby are safe, comfortable and, most crucially, sleeping soundly. Or at least soundly enough to keep everyone's moods at optimal levels.

Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.