Ah yes, another blissful morning waking up on the floor of my bedroom, next to my dog, as my two children sleep peacefully above me. Literally. There they are, aloft in my queen-size bed like tiny royalty. Here I am, below, on a mat, my back aching.

I’m totally to blame. 

We never sleep-trained our two kids, who are now 7 and 5. In the earliest years of their lives, we had two queen-size beds pushed together and that’s how we slept — parents on the outside, kids in the middle — simply because this seemed to be the best way to get the kids to sleep.

But I put my foot down at the start of the pandemic when I was with them 24/7. We got rid of the second queen bed and splurged on bunk beds for the kids. And it worked — for a couple of hours.

But at some point in the night, they always migrated to our room and we’d begin the game of musical beds. I’d usually end up alone in the kids’ room, in the bottom bunk, only to have a child (or two) follow me a few hours later. Eventually, we went back to the family bed. Only now there’s a dog in the mix, too. 

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, like me, you’re probably wondering: has this gone on for too long? Is this bad, psychologically speaking, for the kids? Or does it serve them well? 

Too tired to figure it out for myself, I turned to both the academic literature and experts for a definitive answer.

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But, as it turns out, there is none. 

One study, titled “Co-sleeping: Help or hindrance for young children’s independence?” told me that early co-sleepers are more self-reliant. But another, more recent, said the opposite: co-sleeping, the researchers found, is linked to anxiety.

Researchers at the University of Houston found that higher numbers of anxious kids co-sleep than non-anxious kids. And the more anxious a child is, the more often they co-sleep. (Is it the chicken or the egg? I wondered. Maybe co-sleeping isn’t really the problem, but the symptom?)

A 2019 meta-analysis of 15 studies on co-sleeping suggested that co-sleeping is the result of sleep disturbances, not the cause, but found that co-sleeping is associated with night waking and resistance to going to bed, among other problems.

And then there was the terrifyingly titled 2021 study published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine: “Early Childhood Co-Sleeping Predicts Behavior Problems in Pre-Adolescence.”

Researchers followed 1,565 Chinese children between the ages of 3 to 5 from early childhood into pre-adolescence. At the beginning of the study, parents answered a questionnaire about the children’s sleep habits; later, during pre-adolescence, the children, their parents and teachers answered questions about behavioral problems.

The researchers’ verdict? “Early childhood co-sleeping is associated with multiple behavioral problems reported by parents, teachers, and children themselves.”

That co-sleeping could actually predict behavioral problems makes this study more powerful — and ominous. However, I also recalled from my undergraduate psychology days that before we jump to the conclusion that co-sleeping is bad, we have to consider that the relationship between co-sleeping and behavioral problems could be due to an unaccounted-for third variable.

With my dive into the academic literature leaving me more confused and stressed than ever, I needed a human being to help me cut through all the noise. So I reached out to Susan Stewart, author of “Co-Sleeping: Parents, Children, and Musical Beds” and a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Iowa State University.

First, she distinguished between co-sleeping and the family bed. Co-sleeping is any arrangement that has parents sleeping alongside their children; bed-sharing is exactly what it sounds like — it’s when children and parents sleep in one bed. While bed-sharing falls under the broader co-sleeping umbrella, co-sleeping also includes an endless variety of scenarios — “crazy stuff,” Stewart said, like sleeping next to a child’s crib with your hand stuck through the slats (been there, done that). 

While at this stage of my children’s lives, I was only focused on the psychological picture, parents, of course, have to be vigilant about infants’ physical safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents sleep in the same room with their baby, but not in the same bed, for the first 6 months. Some studies have found bed-sharing with infants to be associated with higher rates of sudden infant death. But, as is the case with co-sleeping more generally, the jury is still out: some researchers believe that bed-sharing, in certain contexts, might have a protective effect on infants — among the reasons, the mother’s exhaled carbon dioxide actually cues the baby’s breathing.

Regardless of how one co-sleeps — whether it’s bed-sharing or upright with a vital appendage wedged between wooden bars — Stewart said that most of the research shows “minimal, if not no (psychological) effect” on children. So, if both the children and parents are willing, Stewart thinks co-sleeping is a good thing. 

“Why would attending to your child’s needs be bad?” Stewart added. “Think about evolution, right. So what are we going to do — leave our kid out for the predators to eat them? You want to keep your babies close to you. And a child who knows that they’re going to be attended to forms more secure attachments.” 

Of course, there are negatives, she acknowledged. Co-sleeping impacts parents’ sleep quality and as parents float from one room to another, there is an element of chaos. But problems usually clear up on their own, Stewart said, adding, “There are very few families where teenagers are still sleeping with the parents.”

What a relief. I put my children and myself down that night with a smug, self-congratulatory pat on the back. But then, the next day, I talked to Melinda Blau, a journalist and co-author of “Family Whispering,” among 14 other books.

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“You’d be doing your kids a favor by keeping them out of your bed at their age,” she said, explaining that doing so communicates trust to children. Putting oneself to sleep at night, Blau added, is a form of responsibility that also gives children a sense of accomplishment. 

“You’re robbing them of independence, and you’re stopping them from developing a skill that is one of the most important masteries of childhood — emotional or mood mastery.”

Explaining that we’ve been locked into these patterns for years now, I asked Blau how to change.

“You can just say, ‘You know, guys, we did this in the beginning. It was a lovely thing. You were babies, you were fragile. You’re now very capable … you’re independent. And you have a great room and great bunk beds,’” Blau offered. 

So, after I got off the phone with Blau, that’s what I did. Sort of. I told my kids that this whole bedtime craziness had to change and was going to. 

Soon. 

I was going out of town for a conference and told them they would go back to the bunks when I returned. And then I immediately backpedaled, adding, “You guys can sleep with me on weekends, as a treat.” This is an arrangement we have tried before; it didn’t last long. 

“Awwwwwww,” my daughter whined. 

“It’s better for you to sleep on your own,” I insisted, even though I wasn’t convinced.

Early the next morning, around 5 a.m., I felt a little body sliding off of the bed and onto my mat. My son. He reached for my hair, ran his hand through it, held a chunk, and put his thumb in his mouth. He has no security blanket — just my hair. Not half an hour later, my daughter was on the other side of me. 

Squeezed together on our tiny mat, I thought about all that we have weathered in the past few years. The outside world: a stormy ocean. Our shared bed: a lifeboat. I inhaled the familiar scent of my daughter’s hair and held on tight. For now. 

Got a parenting question, dilemma or tip? Reach out to @myaguarnieri on Twitter or email her at mjaradat@deseretnews.com