Monday, December 10, 2012

How long should a child sleep in it’s parents bed?

How long should a child sleep in it’s parents bed?

This is a question which never bothered me, when I was in India. But I have been thinking about it when a cousin of mine, in USA, told me how bothered his son’s pediatrician was by the fact that his 2 year old son still sleeps with him and his wife. My cousin got fed up about this doctor’s questions and started lying that his son, now sleeps in his own bed in a different room.

The ideal sleeping arrangements in the west seems to be….

·         a bedroom for each adult couple,

·         a bedroom for the boys(or single rooms if they can afford)…

·         and a bed room for the girls or one per room

·         Even tiny tots are expected to sleep alone in their own room, in their cribs, away from their parents.

While, the western people are shocked by Indian practices such as  a 5 year old  sleeping with his parents, Indians are shocked by what they see as ‘cold-hearted parents’, who  put their  baby alone in a separate crib/ room, instead of having him/her in their own bed!

The customs and practices in India especially related to child rearing are varied across religions, regions, socio-economic status, family type (joint or nuclear), rural or urban region; even the geographical location can influence child rearing practices. Factors such as the place one resides in also influences child rearing practices, depending upon the safety levels for children(especially girl children) in a particular area. (the lesser the safety of  the area for  children, greater the over-protectiveness of the parents such as in large cities like Delhi, Lucknow or Patna )

How long a child sleeps with his or her parents is one important aspect of child rearing practices. I am talking only about this issue in this piece of writing.  In India, especially in rural areas and in the less literate families and poorer families, the parents are easy going about the time they let the child sleep separately. The child continues to sleep with the parents for many years for many reasons.

The poorer the family, greater the number of people living under one roof. Ergo, there are joint families where the parents slept with their kids in one room while another sibling and his family slept in another room and so on.  My own husband, who grew up in a lower middleclass family in Bangalore, slept with his three brothers at one end of the bedroom while his parents slept at the other end of the same room . His aunts and grandmother slept in the other rooms.

There are also families where the parents  live apart as they work in different cities. The children, if they are little, sleep with the parent they are living with, usually the mother.  Initially the child sleeps with the parents as he is afraid to sleep alone but this continues as no one bothers to stop this practice. It may be years before the child is made to sleep in a different room than the parents. I myself have a friend whose husband was in a central government job in India and he was away from his wife and children for 10 years! He would visit his wife and kids about three times a year and his children slept in his wife’s bed for the ten years. I have another friend, whose husband works in a Gulf country likes lakhs of other Indian men. She and her son live by themselves and while I do not know about the sleeping arrangements, I do know that she lived in a tiny one bedroom house. This is typical of millions of Indian families.

Another arrangement is when the child sleeps with his or her grandparents either in their bed or their room. Children sharing the bed or the bedroom with the single(i.e. unmarried) aunt or uncle is another arrangement in middle class families with limited space.

There are also several families I know, where the child sleeps alone in his room but casually enters his parents’ bedroom  and snuggles in the bed with the parents at any time of the night. For example  when the child feels cold or feels afraid after having  a nightmare. Many parents in India do not lock the bedroom door. Or, there are no locks/bolts on bedroom doors in several houses in India.

When I visited a village in Gujarat during summer,  I observed that the males of the house all slept on the roof at one side and the females all slept on another part of the roof. I found this sleeping arrangement strange but this was apparently normal. I have seen similar sleeping arrangements at large family gatherings where the men sleep in one large room and the women in another. The same arrangement is sometimes seen in Chennai when one walks on the roads at night. The homeless or the labourers who don’t have homes or those who find the houses too hot to sleep in, sleep on the pavements. The women sleep together in one spot and the men sleep together at another. However, I have also seen husbands and wives sleep together on the pavements of cities.

When I worked in India,  I never spared a thought about  these varied sleeping arrangements for children. It was only when I moved to Canada and  “white” colleagues of mine expressed shock when they came across children sleeping with their parents that I started thinking about this issue. As I work in the mental health field, this issue comes up quite a bit when I am exploring other issues.

Children sleeping with their parents leads to several problems such as the lack of privacy for parents to have intimacy, to talk and so on; children’s premature exposure to sex or the absence of a sexual life for parents forced to live in this crowded way;

The long term effects of the child sleeping with his parents have to be studied but would be difficult to tease out the effects of other factors which influence.

I work with developmentally delayed adults in Toronto. In the course of my work, I come across bizarre cases where adult children with developmental delay are sleeping with a parent, usually the mother. I have come across cases of 18 or 19 year old son or daughter sleeping in the parents’ bed either with the mother or with both parents. I deal with this information by gently exploring and then telling the parent and the adult with developmental delay that they have to sleep in separate rooms. The reasons for the adult son or daughter sleeping with the parent are predictable.  The delayed child was fearful of sleeping alone as a child or needed help in the middle of the night and the habit of sleeping in the same bed was continued and they never realized that the son is now grown up and needs to sleep apart. In some cases, the delayed son or daughter refuses to sleep in his or her own bed and the parents who are tired of arguing, give up and accept the child sleeping in their bed, even as it grows older. There are also a few over-protective or highly anxious parents who are unable to let their child sleep on it’s own in a separate room. The parents think, the only way to ensure that the child is safe is to sleep with them. It may be because the child has seizures at night or has other problems which make the parent worry about the child’s safety.

In short, children sleeping with parents, especially after they turn 6 years old appears strange or even pathological to the Canadians. However, I think that children sleeping with their parents or other adults, is the norm in India and other places where the culture is different and children are allowed to be with their parents until they are much older. Children and adults sharing bedrooms or even beds  is also the norm in overpopulated countries like India with limited space for living for a vast majority of the people.

What strikes me as bizarre are these sleeping arrangements from other cultures which are alien to me….one is of the Muslim men who have more than one wife at a time and in the same household. (Or even Hindu men, who have more than one wife at a time, usually sisters married to one man for some reason) Does the man sleep in one bed with two wives?? Do they fight? Do the wives sleep in separate bedrooms and he sleeps in different rooms on different nights? I ask this as I know of poor Muslim men, with multiple wives but limited bedrooms!

Another bizarre case was of an extremely dominating and controlling mother of a married man who insisted that he sleeps with his bedroom door open….so that he can hear, if she has a heart-attack and could take her to a hospital! I pity his wife but that is the case and this old lady is too difficult for her son to handle!

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