How to Have a Happy Baby

Infant-Rearing Practice #4: Sleep near your baby

Even though the practice is discouraged in the U.S., parents in many non-Western cultures sleep with their babies every night. Why? “Babies who sleep next to their parents thrive,” says Dr. Sears. “They grow to their potential not just physically, but emotionally and intellectually as well.” In his pediatric office, Dr. Sears keeps a file called “Kids Who Turned Out Well-What Their Parents Did.” He noticed that the babies who slept with their parents during infancy and/or toddlerhood were not only emotionally healthier, but also more connected to their parents.

Experts surmise that the extra touch and nighttime feedings promote positive mental development. “Babies seek mom for comfort,” says Radwan. “Having mom close at night keeps them from being overwhelmed by everything that’s new to them.” Room-sharing encourages breastfeeding, helps mom get her sleep in sync with her baby’s and allows infants to fall asleep more easily.

But here’s the rub: The American Academy of Pediatrics warns against bed-sharing because it can be dangerous for the infant. “Bed-sharing is one of the biggest big controversies around,” says Sears. “My advice is to ‘co-sleep’ rather than bed-share, meaning that mom and baby sleep within easy reach of each other for the first year or two.” Sears suggests using a product called a co-sleeper, a bassinet that attaches to the parent’s bed. This way, your baby will still be within easy reach for nursing and comforting, and he won’t be separated from you during the night.

Finding a Balance
Don’t stress. These infant-rearing practices are not must-dos, 24/7. Pick and choose which of these parenting behaviors fit into your family’s lifestyle, and be consistent. “Sensitive parenting is not about devoting more time,” says Karam Radwan, MD, director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Training Program at the University of Chicago School of Medicine. “It’s really about making the most of the precious time you do spend with your infant.”

We know you’re inundated with parenting advice-from relatives, books, friends, pediatricians and magazines (like ours). When you receive conflicting opinions or you’re in doubt about what to do, trust your instincts. “The most important thing I tell new parents is to put themselves in the baby’s place,” says William Sears, MD (aka Dr. Sears), author of more than 40 books on childcare and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. “Then ask yourself, ‘How would you want your mother to react?‘”

What We Can Learn From Primitive Cultures
Why do we become so attached to our babies? One word: evolution. “Attachment is useful,” says Radwan. “If mom or the caregiver is not responsive to her baby’s needs, the infant is not going to survive.” All mammals have very pronounced attachment procedures. In foraging cultures, human babies are nursed frequently (and usually for two to five years), touched or kept near mom or another caretaker constantly, sleep with their parents and get an almost instant response to their cries.

When Melvin Konner, MD, PhD, a professor of anthropology and behavioral biology at Emory University in Atlanta, was studying the Bushmen of southern Africa, he noted that it was rare for a baby to cry for more than five seconds before somebody responded. “The mother then breastfeeds the baby, usually several times an hour,” says Konner, whose new book The Evolution of Childhood (Harvard University Press, 2010) explains how mental development is rooted in the human ability to attach to one another.

Konner once told a Bushmen mother that some Americans believe that picking up a baby every time it cries would spoil the child. “She asked, ‘Don’t they realize it’s a baby and that’s why it cries? When it gets older, it won’t cry anymore,‘” says Konner.  This represents a profound difference in parenting theories between hunter-gatherers and more developed cultures. This tribal mom believes that her baby will outgrow his crying and that responding each time will comfort him, not spoil him. The moral? “Babies grow out of their undesirable behaviors,” says Konner. “It’s good to believe in the growth process, rather than you trying to control everything.”