“I didn’t intend to be a co-sleeper,” says Sarah-Jane Edwards, a UK-based mum of two children aged six and eight.
After getting divorced in 2021 and going back to work full-time, she found she wasn't getting to spend as much time with her children as she used to.
“I think the children really missed that connection, I know I certainly did. Plus, there were the changes to their home life, with one parent not being around as often, which must have had an impact on their sense of security," she says.
"So, at bedtime after reading a book together it felt natural, and nice, to have them fall asleep in my bed with me. And we’ve been doing it ever since.”
There are many reasons parents choose to co-sleep with their children, with changes to work-life balance, separation anxiety and fear of the dark being among the most common.
But for some families, it's simply about enjoying the sense of closeness.
Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia, said many parents were working long hours, and children and adults were experiencing greater levels of anxiety and stress in today's world.
“As well as the fact that parents are more informed about child development, attachment parenting, and have access to research that supports co-sleeping, it might be a decision both parents and children take to co-sleep,” she said.
Medical guidance on co-sleeping with older children
Advice from the medical community has always been the same: do not have the baby in the same bed as mum and dad.
Risks to the baby include sudden infant death syndrome, accidental suffocation, overheating and strangulation.
These dangers are exacerbated by factors such as if the parent has consumed alcohol or is extremely fatigued.
In June 2022, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement and technical report in which co-author Dr Rebecca Carlin said: “AAP cannot support bed-sharing under any circumstances.”
Then, in March this year, the UK’s National Health Service updated long-standing guidelines about co-sleeping, changing its advice from “never bedshare” to instead offer guidance on being “safe if you share a bed with your baby.”
“If you share a bed with your baby (co-sleeping), you should make sure they sleep on a firm, flat mattress lying on their back, not have any pillows or duvets near them [and] not have other children or pets in the bed at the same time,” says its website.
Sofia Stigka, child and adolescent psychologist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre by Dr Sarah Rasmi, says: “While the landscape is clearer with regards to the babies, as there are structured guidelines from AAP to follow, the matter of co-sleeping is vague when it comes to toddlers and young kids.”
Does co-sleeping affect quality of sleep?
Anyone who has shared a bed with a toddler knows how wriggly they can be at night time, and moving around during sleep is more common in younger children.
“Children, including infants, do have some variations in their sleep patterns and needs compared to adults,” says Dr Mohammed Yousef, specialist psychiatry at Aster Clinic, Muteena.
“Newborns and infants tend to have more fragmented sleep with shorter sleep cycles and spend a significant portion of their sleep in REM sleep. As children grow older, their sleep patterns gradually become more similar to those of adults.”
Different sleeping styles and preferences, such as room temperature and light levels, play a key role in getting a good night’s sleep.
“One of the most important factors to consider is the quality of sleep for both parents and kids while co-sleeping,” says Stigka. “If a good night’s sleep is compromised due to sharing the bed with your child, this is a good indication that it is time to introduce separate sleeping.”
Yousef says it is generally recommended for both adults and children to sleep alone for a peaceful sleep.
"When individuals sleep alone, they have more control over their sleep environment, can adjust their sleep position freely, and are less likely to be disturbed by the movements or noises of a bed partner,” he says.
“In some cultures, like in Asia, Africa, or Latin America and other collectivist cultures, co-sleeping is very normal,” says Dr Afridi.
“In western cultures it is less common because greater emphasis is placed on independence.”
However, she says it is not just a cultural phenomenon, but also prevalent in parents from any part of the world who subscribe to attachment theory as a parenting philosophy – which believes that co-sleeping with parents increases the sense of security and attachment for the child.
Experiences of co-sleeping differ from parent to parent. Some have co-slept since their children were born, while others have adopted the sleeping situation because their children have nightmares or are afraid of the dark – or because of impactful family events, such as divorce or death.
“It is important to consider cultural customs and common practices in other countries,” says Stigka.
“In western societies, independent sleeping was introduced during the 19th century, along with the rise of nuclear families. On the contrary, in India co-sleeping holds great cultural significance, being the cultural norm to co-sleep with your child for as long as possible.
"The truth is that the cultural precepts one has been raised with will probably follow them in adult life and determine the ethos and traditions they will want to instil in their family.”
Angelina Jolie, Ice-T, Alicia Silverstone and Milla Jovovich are just a few celebrities who have spoken about co-sleeping with their older children.
“We have been co-sleeping for years with our daughter and I feel that it’s helped us so much to stay connected as a family,” Jovovich told website Romy & the Bunnies.
Reality TV star, Kourtney Kardashian has also shared her experience, writing on her website: “Getting the kids to sleep through the night in my home was different for each individual child. When I had Mason, co-sleeping just kind of happened naturally. It’s what worked for all of us to get the most sleep, so I quickly embraced it.”
When should you stop co-sleeping?
“There are many documented benefits of co-sleeping with children of any age and there is no specific agreed age at which co-sleeping should be discouraged,” says Dr Elizabeth Aizlewood, clinical psychologist at Aspris Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. “This is a very individual decision and one where the answer will be different for every family.”
As with most conversations around the topic, the answer to when children should move back to their own bed will vary from family to family. For some, age might become a factor, while for others the children might make the choice to move to their next stage of independence.
“In many countries co-sleeping past a certain age has a bad reputation, and this is something that may be an extra social burden for the parents that opt for it or are struggling to overcome it,” says Stigka.
Mohamad Naamani, clinical psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Abu Dhabi, says there is no universal age at which children should be transitioned to their own bed.
"The cut-off age for encouraging solo-sleep in children varies and is subjective to each family. It often depends on factors such as the child's developmental readiness, family dynamics, and personal preferences,” he says.