Bunking Down Together : Family: Proponents of the communal bed say it promotes family intimacy. But some experts warn that the practice discourages children's independence.


David Corpus, a 29-year-old draftsman from San Fernando, takes a beating almost every night: knees to the stomach, elbows to the ribs, fingers in the eyes.

The suspects: daughters Christy, 7, and Patrice, 4, with whom he and his wife, Elizabeth, share their queen-size bed.

But Corpus believes the disruptions--which frequently send him to the living room couch--are a necessary part of parenting.

In San Clemente, the blue-and-white bedroom of Dr. Michael Salem and his wife, April, looks like a slumber party every night. Six-month-old Alyssa is sandwiched between her parents. Chelsea, 6, and Michelle, 4, share a queen-size futon next to the bed. (Jennifer, 17, sleeps down the hall in her own room.)

No one knows how many parents opt for this type of sleeping arrangement, known as the family or communal bed. But the practice--which is supposed to promote family intimacy, minimize sleeping disorders and ease the transition from infanthood to childhood--is growing in popularity and fueling debate. "Donahue" and "20/20" have tackled the subject.

"You don't train a 3-month-old baby like you do the family pet," says Dr. William Sears, 51, a San Clemente pediatrician and a leading advocate of the family bed. An avowed crib hater, he and his wife, Martha, have seven children, including three who still sleep in their bedroom (one in their bed; two next to their bed).

Sears counsels parents to bring newborns into the family bed for the first two years to create what he calls "a healthy sleep attitude." Then at about age 2, he says, the child moves to a futon or a spare mattress that "cable-cars" to the master bed.

"There are places of security that a child has," says the author of "Nighttime Parenting," a bible of sorts for parents who believe in the family-bed concept. "You wean from the womb, you wean from the breast, you wean from the bed, you wean from home to school, and each weaning has a timeliness and a gradualness to it."

Adds Sears: "To force a baby to become independent too early means they miss the stages of learning intimacy. I think they become shallower kids. They learn to live life at a distance, and they become insensitive."

Getting a child to sleep through the night is one of the most critical challenges of parenthood. Newborns typically wake up several times during the night, and this pattern may continue for several months--even years.

Many Americans now raising children were raised according to the wisdom of Benjamin Spock and Barry Brazelton, two renowned pediatricians who caution parents against bringing their children into bed with them.

Indeed, many parents might be surprised to learn there is a movement to promote the practice. But Sears insists it is a natural form of togetherness.

"When a parent is standing outside that room wrenching their heart out because a book says, 'Let 'em cry; harden your heart; you're spoiling him if you give in,' that's going to get the parent in trouble," he says. His complaint with what he calls the "let-'em-cry-it-out approach" is a thinly veiled criticism of the "Ferber method" developed by Dr. Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital in Boston.

In Ferber's book, "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems," the father of two boys discusses how to teach children to fall asleep on their own.

"I don't have a 'Ferber method,' " he says. "It's not a diet or a miracle cure." Yet his approach is often quoted chapter, page and paragraph by doctors and parents to help children conquer sleeplessness.

Ferber believes parents should put their children to bed under the same conditions that will be present if the children awaken during the night.

Parents are not supposed to rock, nurse, cuddle or soothe their children to sleep--unless they're willing to perform the same ritual at 3 a.m. If a child is crying or fussing at bedtime, he tells parents to leave the room for five-minute intervals and then return briefly to reassure the child that he is not being abandoned. Parents must leave whether the child is crying or not and even if the crying intensifies after they depart.

"Eventually, (the child) will learn it is no longer worth it to cry for 15 or 20 minutes just to have you come in briefly," Ferber writes. "He knows you will come, but there is little else to gain--no rocking, holding or nursing. At the same time, he is learning how to fall asleep, alone and in bed."

(Of course, Ferber cautions, parents must rule out such medical reasons for sleeplessness as colic, bed-wetting and intestinal disorders before trying his program.)

Even though Ferber's philosophy irritates Sears, many experts agree with the Boston pediatrician. They believe that a child who falls asleep alone learns to separate from his parents and become independent. They argue that parents who keep their children in bed may delay potty-training and other developmental lessons.

"What happens if the parents need to leave the child with a sitter?" asks Dr. Ken Silvers, a UCLA psychiatrist. "Or when the child begins to grow up and wants to have friends over or go to camp?" Parents may grow to resent their children for making too many demands on their adult schedules.

Ferber suggests that if a child crawls in between parents--in a sense separating the two--he may feel too powerful and become worried. A child, Ferber says, needs the reassurance of knowing his parents are in control and that they will do what is best for him regardless of his demands.

Some parents who would otherwise be alone at night because a spouse is traveling or working late may feel less lonely or isolated if their child is in bed with them, but Ferber says parents need to resolve their own fears and anxieties independently of their children.

"Children learn how to be intimate and how to have close relationships with other people based on their observation of how their parents interact with one another," says Barbara Nicoll, chairman of the child development program at the University of La Verne. "So if the parents are using the children as a wedge between them, then the children are learning things that you wish they might not."

Members of the separate-bed brigade also point to the possibility of problems between two adults who never have any time alone in bed.

On the other hand, Sears and other advocates of the family-bed concept believe that happy, well-adjusted parents will be creative. "Couples who have successfully employed the concept of the family bed have discovered that the master bedroom is not the only place for lovemaking and that every room in the house becomes a potential love chamber," Sears writes in "Nighttime Parenting."

Sears and his followers say that the family bed is unusual only in Western culture and that children sleeping with parents is the norm in many countries. "The crib is a peculiar invention to our society," Sears says.

Proponents of sharing sleep say children gradually leave the family bed on their own. The age that this usually occurs--2, 3 or 4--is not rigid, Sears says, adding that parents may also reach a point where they do not want the child in the bed any more.

"You reach a point, just like in breast-feeding, when you've done your thing and you're ready now to move on to other relationships," Sears says.

Meanwhile, in Canyon Country, Kristin Scott says she hasn't slept for 20 months. Not coincidentally, that's the age of her younger son, Trent.

After spending as much as an hour and a half each night rocking, hugging and singing him to sleep--"doing all the things we dream about as mothers to help our children drift off into dreamland"--she resorted to the Ferber method. Trent, who resisted sleeping in his parents' bed, still wakes up between three and nine times a night, but the wakeful episodes last for only five minutes or so.

Consequently, Scott says she can now spend more time with her husband, David, and 7-year-old son, Ryan.

"I made mistakes," says Scott, adding that she even used "white sound," a machine that sounds like radio static, to try to bore her son to sleep. "I do believe his problem is he never learned to put himself to sleep. That much I buy."

Scott, who has read both Sears and Ferber's books, says all she wants now are "loving children, a loving husband, a terrific family--and lots of sleep."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World