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I recently came across an article all about how co-sleeping supposedly “ruined my marriage." My curiosity piqued, I read on...

The husband, in this case, recounted the ongoing household disagreement over whether his wife should co-sleep with their two young sons. As the title implied, it did not end well.

It made me wonder—is this a common problem? I know couples sometimes disagree over the sleeping arrangements of themselves in relation to their children, but does it really lead to breakups? I turned to research for the answer.

The talk that rarely happens

As the husband in the story pointed out, one of the issues in their co-sleeping battle was the fact that they had never really discussed sleeping arrangement before their sons were born. They fell into a pattern of co-sleeping early on because it was easy and they were desperate for sleep. Over time, however, his feelings about this changed.

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I can really relate to this story, like many of you probably can as well. Before our first 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" co-sleepers. 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" co-sleepers 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.

What research says about co-sleeping + marriage

This brings up an important point—the distinction between “reactive" and “intentional" co-sleeping. This is what the research really focuses on in looking at how it may influence marriage. 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.

The results of the study were quite illuminating: On the whole, the amount of time spent co-sleeping 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" co-sleepers, a difference in marital satisfaction was seen: Among “reactive" co-sleepers, 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 co-sleeping, in itself, does not necessarily make your marriage happy or unhappy. It seems what is more important to marital satisfaction is the path by which parents come to the decision to co-sleep.

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 co-sleeping with their infant as a reaction to sleep challenges, it can have a negative impact on their marriage.

Of courses, like any social science, this study comes with the usual caveats. This is only one study—and you cannot make sweeping generalizations from one study. Additionally, while interesting, this study is not long-term. We have no idea how many of these couples stayed together in the long-run or how their marital satisfaction may have changed over time.

The reality of parenting

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. For example, “I swore I would never let me kids keep a pacifier beyond early toddlerhood" or “I swore I would never reward my kids with sweets." Sound familiar?

Most of us probably engage in parenting choices every day that are not so "intentional" in their nature. Sometimes we do things just to get through the day or phase of a child's development. In itself, this is not always a bad thing. Many times our planned responses change to accommodate our child's needs or temperament.

I "intended" to control my infant's sleeping habits. Ha! Little did I know that his temperament would dictate that. My "reactive" parenting choice was to respond to his needs and my need for sleep.

However, when faced squarely with a situation in which I realize that I'm acting in a "reactive" rather than "intentional" way, I find it helpful to keep in mind a distinction between long-term and short-term goals.

In the case of co-sleeping, my long-term goal was always to have my son sleep in his own bed. Even while we were co-sleeping, I still had that in the back of my mind. As a result, we were able to slowly make this transition while still meeting his need for closeness.

I think keeping in mind this idea of long-term versus short-term goals helps us keep a balance between "reactive" and "intentional" parenting choices. The reactive choice we make today does not have to be set in stone as a choice that remains forever. A reactive choice might meet a short-term goal, but we might need to make more intentional (usually harder) choices to meet a long-term goal in how we want to parent.

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When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to know everything that could possibly be in store for his first year.

I quizzed my own mom and the friends who ventured into motherhood before I did. I absorbed parenting books and articles like a sponge. I signed up for classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and even baby-led weaning. My philosophy? The more I knew, the better.

Yet, despite my best efforts, I didn't know it all. Not by a long shot. Instead, my firstborn, my husband and I had to figure it out together—day by day, challenge by challenge, triumph by triumph.

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The funny thing is that although I wanted to know it all, the surprises—those moments that were unique to us—were what made that first year so beautiful.

Of course, my research provided a helpful outline as I graduated from never having changed a diaper to conquering the newborn haze, my return to work, the milestones and the challenges. But while I did need much of that tactical knowledge, I also learned the value of following my baby's lead and trusting my gut.

I realized the importance of advice from fellow mamas, too. I vividly remember a conversation with a friend who had her first child shortly before I welcomed mine. My friend, who had already returned to work after maternity leave, encouraged me to be patient when introducing a bottle and to help my son get comfortable with taking that bottle from someone else.

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, that's great advice for any working mama. But I also took an incredibly important point from this conversation: This was less about the act of bottle-feeding itself, and more about what it represented for my peace of mind when I was away from my son.

This fellow mama encouraged me to honor my emotions and give myself permission to do what was best for my family—and that really set the tone for my whole approach to parenting. Because honestly, that was just the first of many big transitions during that first year, and each of them came with their own set of mixed emotions.

I felt proud and also strangely nostalgic as my baby seamlessly graduated to a sippy bottle.

I felt my baby's teething pain along with him and also felt confident that we could get through it with the right tools.

I felt relieved as my baby learned to self-soothe by finding his own pacifier and also sad to realize how quickly he was becoming his own person.



As I look back on everything now, some four years and two more kids later, I can't remember the exact day my son crawled, the project I tackled on my first day back at work, or even what his first word was. (It's written somewhere in a baby book!)

But I do remember how I felt with each milestone: the joy, the overwhelming love, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sense of wonder. That truly was the greatest gift of the first year… and nothing could have prepared me for all those feelings.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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