And Baby Makes Three in One Bed
By AMY HARMON
Published: December 29, 2005
JENNIFER JAKOVICH has spent most of her 5-month-old daughter’s life dodging questions from friends, family and strangers about how and where Chloe sleeps. But since hearing that Dr. Richard Ferber, the country’s most famous infant sleep expert, has relaxed his admonition against parents sleeping with their babies, she has taken a different tack.
Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times
Jennifer and John Jakovich (with Chloe) consider themselves vindicated by the reversal of Dr. Richard Ferber, the infant sleep expert.
“I now mention Ferber’s new view while openly admitting to co-sleeping,” said Ms. Jakovich, an engineer in San Diego. She has broken the news to friends that Chloe sleeps in the same bed with her and her husband, John, a computer programmer. “I feel I have now been given the green light, that it’s O.K.”
The Jackoviches are part of a growing group of American parents who share a bed with their baby, a common practice in the rest of the world, which had become nearly taboo in this country. A survey by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has found that about one-fifth of parents with infants up to eight months old said the baby usually shared a bed with them, more than triple the number of a decade ago.
The trend appears to be driven largely by the increase in breastfeeding working mothers, who say it allows them to connect with their babies and still get some sleep. But given the prevailing cultural distaste, many parents say they have felt compelled to hide their shared sleeping arrangements.
It is a testament to Dr. Ferber’s influence that even the halfhearted nod he has given the practice in interviews has inspired a kind of collective coming-out party among co-sleeping parents. Transcripts of his network news and talk show appearances last month are being circulated on the Internet and recited on the playground.
“Even though I shouldn’t have to defend myself, it is nice to have that,” Ms. Jakovich said. Like many other parents, she never intended to sleep with her daughter. “My view was that granola-hippie-type people co-sleep,” she added.
But Ms. Jakovich, 30, quickly found that she slept better when she didn’t have to get up in the night to nurse Chloe. To make things more comfortable, the Jakoviches took one side off Chloe’s deluxe crib and pushed it up against their mattress, which they upgraded to a king-size.
The old Dr. Ferber would not have approved. In his best-selling 1985 book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems,” he advised parents to let babies cry for intervals of up to 45 minutes without responding, to train them to sleep on their own. Should the child cry so hard that he throws up, parents are to clean up and leave again. “If you reward him for throwing up by staying with him, he will only learn that this is a good way for him to get what he wants,” Dr. Ferber wrote.
Parents who take a baby into their bed instead, the book suggested, damage the child’s development as an individual and are probably only trying to avoid their own intimacy problems. “If you find that you actually prefer to sleep with your infant,” it warned, “you should consider your own feelings very carefully.”
Practiced by millions of parents and widely promoted by pediatricians, Ferberization and its variations tap into the American desire to imbue children with independence from an early age. Setting babies apart in their own cribs also eases a typically American tendency to see sleeping arrangements as sexual rather than social, some anthropologists say.
Concerns about safety, albeit contested, added to the consensus against bed sharing, so that a baby’s completing a sleep-training regimen has come to be seen as a developmental milestone comparable to crawling or cutting a first tooth.
Now, in a flurry of publicity for a revised version of Dr. Ferber’s book, he has allowed that his technique is not suitable for all babies and that children can develop healthy sleep habits sleeping in their parents’ bed.
A spokeswoman for Dr. Ferber’s publisher, Marcia Burch, the vice president for publicity at Touchstone Fireside, a division of Simon & Schuster, said he had been taken aback by the interest in his position on bed sharing and that Dr. Ferber, the director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston, would not comment further until the new edition is published in March.
“He totally underestimated the reaction,” Ms. Burch said. “He totally misunderstood that this was going to be really big news.”
Still, Dr. Ferber’s shift has sparked celebration among some parents, who have faced criticism for defying the American dictum that babies should learn to sleep alone. And in a child-rearing battle that has become as ideological as it is intimate, others say vindication is in order, not from Dr. Ferber so much as from fellow parents who evangelize his teachings with moral fervor.
“It is at her next doctor’s appointment, her 12-month checkup,” Christina Harrison said of her daughter, Alyssa, “that I relish the chance to bring it up the most.” Ms. Harrison, 29, let Alyssa cry until her voice was hoarse at her pediatrician’s urging. “It was horrible.”
Ms. Harrison has resolved to sleep with Alyssa until she is happier about being in her own bed.
Stephanie Lazure, 31, hopes to show a clip of the ABC News interview with Dr. Ferber to her husband’s boss, who bought the couple Dr. Ferber’s book as a baby present. “She comes over and shakes her finger in the baby’s face and says, ‘You have to learn to self-soothe,’ ” Ms. Lazure said. “It’s not that I feel criticized. It’s that I feel my baby is being criticized for not sleeping.”
Pressure not to co-sleep isn’t coming only from relatives and other parents. Many pediatricians discourage the practice because they worry about parents rolling over and smothering the baby. But the question of how co-sleeping affects the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, known as SIDS, is contested. Last month the American Academy of Pediatrics SIDS task force released a statement discouraging parents from sharing beds with their babies.
But the academy’s own section on breastfeeding argues that bed sharing is safe in many circumstances and can benefit babies by facilitating breastfeeding. And an epidemiological study published in the fall in the journal Pediatrics found no higher sudden infant death risk for infants older than 11 weeks unless the mother smokes.
“Some of the opponents of bed sharing persist in their beliefs in spite of the scientific evidence,” said Dr. Martin Lahr, who is an author of the paper on bed sharing.
Co-sleeping has long been embraced by devotees of Dr. William Sears and his philosophy of “attachment parenting,” who dismiss Dr. Ferber’s earlier methods as cruel. Ferber fans have in turn derided co-sleepers as sacrificing themselves and their romantic relationships in the name of spoiling a baby who needs parents to set limits.
But many of the new co-sleepers appear to base their sleeping arrangements on a blend of pragmatism and pleasure, rather than on a particular approach to parenthood. Some push together queen mattresses with twin mattresses, others snuggle closer together or improvise each night. Cribs, Pack ‘N Plays and bassinets become useful repositories for toys and laundry.
Rita Hunt Smith, 39, a children’s librarian in Hershey, Pa., began co-sleeping with her first son, Ezra, after spending an agonizing night listening to him cry in the crib down the hall. Then she came to treasure the closeness it forged among Ezra, her and her husband, Kurt, a graphic artist.
Now 3Â½, Ezra spends most nights in his own bed, while the Smiths’ 14-month-old son, Fletcher, sleeps with them. Perhaps because her husband has an older son from a previous marriage, Ms. Smith said, he has been supportive, even though he would like more room for his 6-foot-3 frame.
“He knows the day is coming when they won’t even want to be in the same room with us, so let’s soak it up now,” Ms. Smith said. Upon waking, Fletcher, who has just begun to talk, greets his parents with “hiya.”
Ms. Smith said she used to be highly secretive about their co-sleeping, but has begun talking more about it during baby story-time sessions she runs. Her mother, though, “continues to think I’m ruining my sons’ sleep habits forever,” she said.
Child development experts have said that Dr. Ferber was likely to be reacting to accumulated research since his earlier edition that supports the notion that babies have different temperaments and that their development is best served when parents are able to adapt to their individual needs.
“It is clear that children of differing temperaments need different things at night, just as they do during the day,” said Sara Harkness, the director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Health and Human Development at the University of Connecticut.
Dr. Harkness, who has conducted cross-cultural research on infant sleep habits in several countries, said no studies have borne out the connection originally drawn by Dr. Ferber and others between teaching babies to sleep alone and their ability to develop autonomy.
“It’s an American myth,” Dr. Harkness said. “It’s fine to think about training children to be independent, but there has been this misguided effort to extend it to an area where it’s really not developmentally appropriate.”
Some co-sleeping parents say they do not need advice from experts to decide where their baby should sleep.
“With no intended disrespect to Dr. Ferber, I do not need his opinion to validate my view that co-sleeping is the healthiest, safest and most natural sleep situation for my child,” Kristi Buxton, 29, a microbiology researcher in Portland, Ore., wrote in an e-mail message. “The individual who has most influenced (and radically changed) my beliefs about co-sleeping is my child.”