Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Is There a Connection Between Co-Sleeping and Marital Satisfaction?



Whether you are a new or veteran parent, you are well aware of the challenges that often come with finding suitable sleeping arrangements for you and your newborn. Newborns, of course, wake often during the night and finding a sleeping arrangement that allows for maximum sleep for you, your baby, and your spouse is sometimes difficult. I think soon-to-be parents are often unaware of these challenges before their little bundle of joy arrives.

Before our son was born, my husband and I had planned that he would sleep in a bassinet in our room and slowly transition to a crib in his nursery. Well, like many new parents, I was surprised to learn how difficult this can be. During his first month or so of life, our son rarely slept for more than 30 minutes at a time unless he was being held, preferably on someone’s chest. Needless to say, this put a kink in our plan of him sleeping in the bassinet. Eventually, we became what researchers call, “reactive” bed-sharers. In other words, we did not plan to share our bed with our infant but did so as a reaction to his sleeping habits. This is in contrast to “intentional” bed-sharers who plan from the beginning to share their bed with their infant. As it turned out, over the course of several months our son was able to sleep longer periods on his own, first in our room and then in his crib in his own room.  

This distinction between “reactive” and “intentional” bed-sharers, however, is an important one when it comes to research on parenting. Although only a mental distinction, the idea of parenting in a way that does or does not correspond with your ideals (in this case bed sharing) may influence the interactions between family members regarding this topic. A recent, very interesting study just looked at this subject in regards to parent-infant bed sharing and marital satisfaction.

The main questions of the study were twofold: (1) is there a difference in marital satisfaction (as measured by the mom) based on the amount of time parents share a bed with their infant; and (2) can variation in marital satisfaction be attributed to parents’ “reactive” vs. “intentional” bed-sharing approach. The results of the study were quite illuminating. On the whole, the amount of time spent bed-sharing with an infant did not significantly predict marital satisfaction between the couple. In other words, parents who spent a lot of time sharing a bed with their infant were no more likely to be dissatisfied with their marriage than those who spent less time bed-sharing with their infant.

However, when you consider the distinction between “reactive” and “intentional” bed-sharers, a difference in marital satisfaction was seen. Among “reactive” bed-sharers, those who spend more time sharing their bed reported lower levels of marital satisfaction. In contrast, among “intentional” bed-sharers there was no significant relationship between time spent bed-sharing and marital satisfaction.

There are several ideas I think this study helps us understand. Most clearly, it shows that bed-sharing, in itself, does not necessarily relate to marital satisfaction. It seems what is more important to marital satisfaction is the path by which parents come to the decision to bed-share. If parents always planned to share their bed with their infant, this choice seems to have little impact on their marital relationship. If, however, parents end up bed-sharing with their infant as a reaction to sleep challenges, it can have a negative impact on their marital relationship.

In a larger sense, I think this study sheds light on the important distinction between “reactive” and “intentional” parenting choices in all sorts of contexts (e.g., discipline, nutrition, etc.). In our lives as parents I think we all come across issues in which we make choices that do not always correspond to our pre-parenthood ideals. In itself, this is not always a bad thing, because many times our planned responses change to accommodate our child’s needs or temperament. I think it is helpful to be aware of our choices as “reactive” vs. “intentional” in the sense that this distinction can help us understand why we feel the way we do about certain parenting choices. I think sometimes parents feel guilty about a parenting decision because it does not correspond to what they intended to do when they considered the decision prior to having children. In some cases, this guilt may be warranted if the decision really isn’t in the best interest of the child. In many cases, however, this decision is simply a different one than they had planned and is equally effective and responsive to the child’s needs.   

ResearchBlogging.orgMessmer, R., Miller, L., & Yu, C. (2012). The Relationship Between Parent-Infant Bed Sharing and Marital Satisfaction for Mothers of Infants Family Relations, 61 (5), 798-810 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00734.x 
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