Does co-sleeping make separation anxiety worse?

Co-sleeping for anyone not in the know is also called bed sharing or family bed and basically it describes parents who sleep with their kids. That’s it. That can mean anything from kids who climb into their parents bed after a nightmare to kids who start out in their parents’ bed or whose families have one big bed made up of a lot of mattresses and everybody piles in.

How we sleep is a cultural decision. Not just the whole broad culture, although obviously we are impacted by our social mores, but also a family culture decision.

Lots of families co-sleep and I have no opinion whatsoever about that as long as everyone is more or less happy and is getting enough sleep.

This is one of those parenting decisions that I don’t think you can take out of context of the family functioning and say it is GOOD or BAD. It’s neutral.

It’s good if your family likes it and it works and it’s bad if your family doesn’t like it and it doesn’t work. OK?

So just to be clear about that. I have no bias about whether or not you should co-sleep with your kids, it’s a personal decision.

But. Does it cause separation anxiety? Well, there I have some thoughts and I’m gonna share them.

First let’s define separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety describes kids who struggle to separate from their parents beyond when it is developmentally appropriate. We except kids to go through periods of separation anxiety. We know that older infants — around 8 months or so — start to cling to the parents. This is the age where babies that were perfectly happy to get passed around stop liking it. 

The rise in separation anxiety in infants goes along with their developing object permanence, which means that your baby is learning that things continue to exist even after they can’t see them. That gives them the ability to hold their parent in their mind even after that parent has left, which gives them the ability to miss you thus separation anxiety.

This continues into toddlerhood but we shouldn’t be surprised when it crops up later when kids are challenged in new ways. For example, it’s not atypical for a preschooler or even a kindergartener to cry when they’re left at school for the first time. Generally they’re growing out of it so even if they are upset, they’ve learned how to tolerate their discomfort long enough to acclimate to their new environment. 

Separation anxiety disorder is when the child is not able to acclimate. A 4-year old who is a little tearful and doesn’t want their parent to leave that first week of school may be typical but a 6-year old who is struggling might need some extra consideration. Or a 4-year old who doesn’t eventually get comfortable but stays distressed. We’d also want to make a note of that. That’s a sign of true anxiety, not just a developmentally appropriate reaction.

And yes, we see separation anxiety at bedtime when those kids need to separate from their caregivers. It’s one reason some children struggle to go to bed. Not always, of course, some kids just want to stay up where the action is but children who insist on parents lying down with them or who won’t stay in bed unless their parents do, that can be a sign of separation anxiety.

Now let’s be clear, co-sleeping doesn’t cause this. Co-sleeping may happen in reaction to it. If a parent feels unable to leave their upset child or gives in to tears and let’s them sleep in the big bed, that’s a reaction. The parent is reacting to the child’s distress. 

So co-sleeping doesn’t cause it but you can see that it can perpetuate it.

Again, if the whole family is happy with this scenario then there are no worries. But if the family is unhappy with the scenario then something needs to change.

That’s the thing about anxiety. Some of it is situationally dependent. For example, it’s common in other countries for adult children to continue to live with their parents. This doesn’t cause separation anxiety but some adult children live with their parents because of their anxiety.

Or think about a city like New York City. Lots of people there don’t have driver’s licenses because they don’t need them. It’s got nothing to do with anxiety about driving a car. That said, sometimes not having a driver’s license as an adult may be an anxiety symptom. How do we know the difference? It’s about how people feel about it. If someone wants more independence but is afraid to drive that’s an anxiety issue. 

If an adult child wants to move out of their parents’ house but is afraid they aren’t capable, that’s an anxiety issue. Or if a parent wants an adult child to move out of the house but the child is afraid that they aren’t capable, that’s an anxiety issue AND it’s a boundary issue for the parents.

Likewise, if you don’t want to co-sleep and your child is insisting on it, that may be an anxiety issue and it’s definitely a boundary issue for the parents. In other words, the parents are going to have to figure out how to set and hold boundaries in ways that are appropriate for themselves, for their child, and for the family as a whole. Which is, as I said, very personal.

Sometimes I work with families where there is definitely separation anxiety present particularly around bedtime, which is what brings the family in to the program. I also work with families where there is definitely anxiety present including around bedtime, but they’re not concerned about that and are more concerned about the presentation elsewhere like getting the child off to school or going to playdates or letting mom pee with the door shut. That’s fine. We can focus on the issue that is causing the family grief. We do not need to start with areas where the family has not identified a problem. I do think it makes sense to consider it — are we ok with the co-sleeping? is there a point when we might want it to shift? — but ultimately the family gets to decide what works best for them.

What I have found is that when we’re doing good work around separation anxiety that the family is able to make appropriate individualized decisions about things like co-sleeping and babysitters and homeschooling. Every family has different expectations and limits around those things but when things are generally becoming more healthy, it becomes easier to know what to do in those situations.


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