Catching Zzz's

Cuddling Kids To Sleep Could Put Them At Risk For Insomnia

Kids can become be dependent on snuggling to fall asleep.

Originally Published: 
A dad and child cuddle in bed, asleep.
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Physical affection is indisputably good for kids, and studies suggest cuddling can reduce children’s stress levels and boost their immune systems. But cuddling your kids to sleep can be harmful. Experts warn that helping your older children fall asleep with nightly cuddles could set them up for a lifetime of sleep problems.

“Most children will eventually learn to sleep on their own by middle school,” says Andrew J. Bernstein, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin. “But those that were cuddled for a long time will often have a hard time going to sleep until they feel very tired, resulting in bedtimes that are too late.”

Most parents practice some form of co-sleeping, studies suggest. While scientists have clearly demonstrated that it’s dangerous to co-sleep with an infant, co-sleeping with toddlers and small children is seldom a safety issue. Indeed, nearly 50% of moms report snuggling with their kids in bed until age 12, and a full 13% say they do so every night.

Meanwhile, roughly 25% of children suffer from a condition known as behavioral insomnia — manifesting either as “curtain calls” (when kids wake up and ask for a glass of water) or as “false associations” (when kids insist on falling asleep with a comfort object or a parent’s cuddling).

“I personally don’t like this term ‘behavioral insomnia’ because it sort of pins the child with this diagnosis of insomnia where it’s really more of a conditioning issue,” says Noah S. Siegel, M.D., a physician and sleep specialist at Harvard Medical School. “Whether it truly is a disorder or not is really up for debate.”

Regardless, the prognosis is favorable for most children with behavioral insomnia. And, despite the name, Siegel says there’s no evidence that this childhood diagnosis puts kids at risk for insomnia as adults.

At the same time, children who get less sleep when their routines are disrupted are at greater risk for a host of health problems. And disruptions are inevitable — moms go on business trips; teddy bears get eaten by dogs.

Still, most experts agree that there are few long-term developmental concerns. So parents who prefer to co-sleep aren’t entirely out of luck — but they may want to adjust how they co-sleep, so their children do not become dependent on any one thing before bedtime.

That’s not the only reason to reconsider. Studies suggest cuddling kids to sleep every night takes a toll on moms and dads. “It’s hard on parents who work hard all day and are up all night with their children who need them for sleep,” Bernstein says. “Parents miss out on their own time for connection and relaxation.”

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