Children Should Sleep Near Parents Until 5

By Sian Griffiths
One of Britain’s leading experts on children’s mental health has advised parents to reject years of convention and allow children to sleep next to them until the age of five.

Margot Sunderland, director of education at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, says the practice, known as cosleeping, makes children more likely to grow up as calm, healthy adults. Sunderland, scientist and author of 20 books, outlines her advice in The Science of Parenting.

She is so sure of the findings in the new book, based on 800 scientific studies, that she is calling for health visitors to be issued with fact sheets to educate parents about co-sleeping. “These studies should be widely disseminated to parents,” said Sunderland. “I am sympathetic to parenting gurus — why should they know the science? 90% of it is so new they bloody well need to know it now. There is absolutely no study saying it is good to let your child cry.”

She argues that the practice common in Britain of training children to sleep alone from a few weeks old is harmful because any separation from parents increases the flow of stress hormones such as cortisol. Her findings are based on advances in scientific understanding over the past 20 years of how children’s brains develop, and on studies using scans to analyze how they react in particular circumstances. For example, a neurological study three years ago showed that a child separated from a parent experienced similar brain activity to one in physical pain.

Sunderland also believes current practice is based on social attitudes that should be abandoned. “There is a taboo in this country about children sleeping with their parents,” she said. “What I have done in this book is present the science. Studies from around the world show that co-sleeping until the age of five is an investment for the child. They can have separation anxiety up to the age of five and beyond, which can affect them in later life. This is calmed by co-sleeping.”

Symptoms can also be physical. Sunderland quotes one study that found some 70% of women who had not been comforted when they cried as children developed digestive difficulties as adults. Sunderland’s book puts her at odds with widely read authors such as Gina Ford, whose advice is still followed by thousands.

Ford advocates establishing sleep routines for babies from a very early age in cots “away from the rest of the house” and teaching babies to sleep “without the assistance of adults”. In her book, she writes that parents need time by themselves.

Annette Mountford, chief executive of the parenting organization, Family Links, confirmed that the norm for children in Britain was to be encouraged to sleep in cots and beds, often in separate bedrooms, from an early age. “Parents simply want their space,” she said.

Sunderland says moving children to their own beds from a few weeks old, even if they cry in the night, has been shown to increase the flow of cortisol. [High cortisol levels are associated with such health hazards as high blood pressure, hypertension, high vasocongestion, headaches, belly aches, indigestion, acid reflux, decreased attachment, decreased bonding, problems with breastfeeding, failure to thrive, decreased IQ, slow development, and social distrust.]

Studies of children under five have shown that for more than 90%, cortisol rises when they go to nursery. For 75%, it falls whenever they go home.

Professor Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, who has written a foreword to the book, said Sunderland’s arguments were “a coherent story that is consistent with neuroscience. A wise society will take it to heart.”

Sunderland argues that putting children to sleep alone is a peculiarly western phenomenon that may increase the chance of cot death, also known as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This may be because the child misses the calming effect on breathing and heart function of lying next to its mother.

“In the UK, 500 children a year die of SIDS,” Sunderland writes. “In China, where cosleeping is taken for granted [as the normal way for babies to sleep], SIDS is so rare it does not even have a name.”

Additional research on sleep sharing can be found on the Baby Sleep Resources Page. 
Also see, Sleep Training: A Review of Research.

The CoSleeping Group:



  1. I agree totally. We always co-sleep with our babies/little kids. I can't imagine leaving my baby in a room all alone to sleep!

  2. "70% of women who had not been comforted when they cried as children developed digestive difficulties as adults."

    That is pretty depressing considering how many babies sleep in their own rooms and are taught to cry it out. Thanks for sharing much needed info!

  3. I would LOVE to be able to sleep with my kiddos more! However, after about 10 months my babies decide they like their privacy/quiet and simply will stay up most of the night trying to play. Even though they've not slept anywhere but with me. That lasts until about 18 months or 2, by which time I've had enough and given them their own room LOL. But I take what I can and they always know they can come to me in the night if they need to.

  4. Thanks for this article, shared on my fanpage

  5. My son went into his own room at 3 months as he never seemed settled when he was in the room with me (i think maybe the smell of my milk was too distracting for him), he loves his bed and he loves his own space and quiet. When he has been ill i have brought him in my bed to keep him close but literally as soon as the fever passes he wants to go back to his own beddy. I never left him to cry though, so i don't think he has ever felt abandoned (i hope!). He is 2.5 now, i still feed him at night. he has a stairgate on his bedroom, but he never rattles the bars or cries to get out, if he gets out of bed in the night he just curls up on the floor next to the stairgate and falls asleep again.. cute..

    1. If the smell of the milk was "too distracting" you should have just given it to him. Probably he wanted to fall asleep while nursing. Lots of babies find comfort just by sucking the nipple, as if it was a pacifier.

    2. "if he gets out of bed in the night he just curls up on the floor next to the stairgate and falls asleep again.. cute.."

      Really, I think that's more sad than cute.

    3. Cute? Really?!! That's terribly sad! One of the saddest visuals I've had in a while.

    4. This comment is in response to the one by Anon 1 above... the breast is the ORIGINAL 'pacifier' ;)

      The plastic ones are only a recent invention to take the place of mom... Just sayin'

    5. Whilst I completely advocate having the child sleep between mum and dad I do not advocate belittling a parent who is trying to do the right thing for their child. We are not given manuals, opinions constantly change and not every child is the same. You get a lot of advice from lots of people when you have children, which can be very annoying, but at the end of the day you have to do what is right by you and your child.

      We had all our children in our bed untill they were about a year and a half but there is no way we would have ever had our children in bed with us till the age of five. For two reasons. First try having three one to five year olds sharing the same bed with you and see how restful your nights are. Second mum and dad still need alone time.

      Think you guys need to have some grace.

  6. Our 10 month old still nurses to sleep and sleeps in her crib.When she wakes, I bfeed her in our bed and if she cries herself awake when I try to put her back in her crib, she just sleeps with us. I guess we are practicing co-sleeping too, just not 100% of the time. We never let her cry it out.

  7. My son sleeps with us daughter enjoys her room but ocassionally wants to sleep with us. So what? THIS IS NOT SPOILING! Great article!
    LJ Brooks, BS, Psychology in December 2010.

    1. same here :} tonight for example my little one decided she wanted to sleep with us :}
      really great article..needed to read this, people are always saying how bad it is so this was awsome to read.

  8. Excellent article! If only the people who need to hear this would hear it!!!

    I would love to get citations/links to the two studies mentioned in this article, too. Great backup when sharing information.

    It always turns my stomach to think of a baby or child crying to be with her parents. That a society can claim this is not only okay, but beneficial, chills me to the bone. What kind of people are we when the cry of a child is deliberately ignored?


  9. I think much of this depends on child temperament. Our older son, who is now 7, co-slept with us until he was 2, and still off and on comes into our bed. We never had him cry it out, and he still wants more often than not to be with us. But our younger son, 8 months, by the age of 8 weeks was clearly sleeping much better in his crib than in our bed -- peaceful when put down and calm on waking. If he cries in the night we immediately pick him up and hold him, but he has never had an interest in sleeping with/on us as our older son did.
    Just as I think co-sleeping should be encouraged, I wouldn't want parents to feel they need to force it on a child for whom it may not be the right thing. The best parenting advice I've gotten and heard is to pay attention to who your child is, not to what "experts" say.

  10. I agree with this topic. I son co-slept with us since he was born until 2 years, now I just try to let him in his room and try to sleep by himself. However it's not just easy, I've to let him cry again and again more than 30-50 minutes. Tonight is the first night he sleep by himself. I don't like the people who make a prejudice when I told that my boy is still co-sleep with us. Moreever each country has a different culture. Thanks for share this :)

  11. Is there a reason to stop co-sleeping at 5 years old?

  12. good point anonymous...why not let them sleep with you indefinitely?

  13. My boys have both looked for their own space once they have become mobile ... having a 'big boy room' but knowing that they can migrate back to the parental bed if they wish to - even our 7 year old has been known to creep back in, or to start the night with us, when he has been worried about something or otherwise insecure.
    Due to renovations our 3.5 year old is still in a toddler bed between our bed and the wall, and he has started really seriously asking to have his bed in his room even if one wall is not yet rebuilt/plastered yet ...
    So, from my experience, secure attached toddlers often desire their own room, as long as they know they can come back whenever they choose to ... so I provide the facilities for that, I think forcing co-sleeping can be as harmful as forcing separation. I would not want to teach my boys that they cannot possibly rest, sleep, manage their own needs, away from their parents.

    1. I agree. I have just started putting my 20 month old to sleep in her own room (adjoining mine). I bring her into my bed when she wakes. She is still breastfeeding and nurses to sleep. I want her to gradually get used to her own space, but also know that she is ALWAYS welcome to come to me (and my bed) for comfort. Attachment parenting is not about following rules, it is about being in touch with our instincts and being responsive to our children's needs. That means that co-sleeping is probably always appropriate at infancy, and, over time, may or may not be depending on the child and the level of attachment.

  14. Chipmunk has just turned one. She's slept with us from birth, and shows no sign of wanting to "move out" any time soon. I'm perfectly OK with that. The way I see it, my child knows what she needs better than I do. It's my role as her parent to facilitate that. Thank you so much for helping make people aware of the scientific research being done in this and other areas, showing that co-sleeping is beneficial, safe, and healthy. More people need to know that!

  15. My daughter sleeps in her crib next to my bed since 7 months now she's 18 months and knows she can always sleep with me if she wants. Before 7 months she slept in the bed with us. Best solution for her she sleeps great now knowing moms not far away.

  16. Squirrel, I'd say that's sort of the point... a child who knows that his or her needs will be met will be comfortable seeking their own space. I don't see anything suggesting that a child asking for his own room should be kept in the parents' bed unwilling.

  17. Great article!

    It is hard for me to even imagine my 13 and a half month baby being away from me at night, regardless of others might think or say (I really do not care about that). My baby sleeps in her crib right next to our bed, next to me (that is also co-sleeping, right?).
    I remember that when she had colic (terrible period for us all) she would be somehow calmer between us in our bed and sleep better (and we would get some sleep too). I never let her cry helplessly (neither at night nor if she is sleeping during the day and if she wakes up crying/yelling). If she is sick or unwell (teething) I lay her between us in our bed. Quite often I have to place her in her crib again as she is quite energetic (maybe she thinks it is playtime) - but other times she just falls asleep with us. If she wakes up in the middle of the night I always comfort her. She falls asleep in her crib before we go to bed, that is for sure, but I do not think that is bad for her.
    She often wakes up smiling and in a good mood. I think she knows that mommy is right next to her in case she needs (me).


  18. Great article! Thank you so much for posting this!
    My son (2yrs) still sleeps in our bed, and I truly believe it is what he wants and needs. He has his own room and bed, but he never wants to sleep in it. And I would never force him to.
    This said, I do notice that having our son in bed pretty much every night is stressing my relationship a bit. My partner does not understand the concept of co-sleeping and would prefer our son sleeps in his own bed! "Like all children do!"
    Would be nice to have some advice regarding co-sleeping vs relationship.

  19. I love having snuggley time with baby -if only I slept soundly thou. Every night without fail I am talking in my sleep. My partner says I flip around like a fish. There have been a few occiasions where I think I scared my baby, probably by bursting a song at 2am. But on the odd occaision, we have all slept soundly and little baby has a suckle. It makes me feel complete. I also have a 3 yar old son who jumps in the bed whenever he likes but I think I also stir him with my talking etc because he wakes up and tells me to put him back i his bed. lol. Thinking back to cavewoman times the babies would've been in the same cave with their mummies, not in another room/cave.

  20. Our oldest did until the cusp of 5 and he still didn't want to leave, but little brother was almost here. It is really impossible with multiple young toddlers. Ours all want in our bed but too many bigger kids is not safe sleeping for the newborn. We're going on baby 4 and still don't have it "figured out." Nighttime is a disaster in our house but it seems to be better for them than all around (they're securely attached, independent, highly intelligent, etc)



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