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A study’s findings revolve around the brain’s consolidation of emotional memories into long-term memory, which happens during sleep. (Thinkstock)
A study’s findings revolve around the brain’s consolidation of emotional memories into long-term memory, which happens during sleep. (Thinkstock)

When bedtime turns into musical beds Add to ...

When Toronto chef Susur Lee arrived home late one night last month, he watched television with his middle son, Kai, and ended up falling asleep in the same bed with him. Kai is 14.

At other times, Mr. Lee might sleep in the bed of his eldest son, Levi, who is 16.

"We have four beds to choose from and Susur will pick which will afford him more quiet in the morning," says Brenda Bent, Mr. Lee's wife and restaurant partner.

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Ms. Bent spent that same night sleeping in the bed of their youngest son, Jet, 7. Earlier that week, she also watched television with Kai, who was just back from a tennis tournament in Florida, and fell asleep in his bed.

"Everyone has their own room. Do we sleep together? Sure, why not?" she says.

Two-thirds of parents in Canada said in a survey that they sleep with their offspring "sometimes," "often" or "always," according to a recent report in Today's Parent magazine.

In the United States, surveys by the research arm of the National Institutes of Health show that bed-sharing in families more than doubled to 12.8 per cent in 2000 from 5.5 per cent in 1993.

It's the ultimate boon for today's overworked, guilt-ridden, multitasking parent: quality time with the kids while you're sleeping.

It's also the last taboo.

Even people from cultures where bed-sharing is, well, embedded often prefer not talk about it in Canada.

Some discomfort stems from the suggestion that your sex life is a desert. Then there is the implication that your kids are weirdly, excessively needy. Worst, there are the overtones of incest, Oedipus-complex theories and Woody Allen's scandalous 1997 marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, adopted daughter of his former lover, Mia Farrow.

"It can be totally innocent, affectionate and warm, but the opportunity for any one with those instincts to cross the line is so great," says Sylvia Fraser, a Toronto journalist whose 1987 memoir, My Father's House, chronicled her sexual abuse by her father.

Co-sleeping cuts across race, culture and class. It endures, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.

For worse, it means your bedtime is theirs, thus obliterating that one speck of sanity in parenthood -- those blissful hours of "grownup time" after the kids are finally asleep.

For better, it means an unparalleled intimacy with your child. Some parents occasionally experience that moment in the car when, providing the iPod is stowed, their offspring are trapped into a prolonged conversation. Those who co-sleep find that the relaxed moments before drifting off create an atmosphere when you can ask your kid, "How was your day?" and you won't necessarily receive the monosyllabic mutter: "Fine."

Of course, the burning question is: What happens to, um, sex? "During the week, we're not having sex anyway," says Cara Loncar, a manager in the food industry who lives in Etobicoke, Ont. Her daughter, Allegra, 10, usually sleeps with her twice a week. When that happens, Mrs. Loncar's husband, John, an immigration lawyer, climbs into Allegra's empty bed. Their son, Jack, 7, usually stays put -- unless he has a nightmare.

But is co-sleeping good for kids? Families that bed-share almost always start early. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't address the question of older children, but this fall it flatly advised against babies sleeping in parents' beds, citing an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome. This followed similar advisories by Britain's Department of Health and the Canadian Pediatric Society. "The safest place for babies to sleep is in their own cribs," the Canadian group said.

Some experts say these warnings needlessly guilt-trip parents. By definition, SIDS is an unexplained death that rules out inadvertent smothering by a parent rolling over. "To make the connection [with SIDS]is outrageous. Sooner or later, they're going to have to retract it," says Dr. James MacFarlane of the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children.

The newest advisory blames co-sleeping itself, rather than risk factors such as soft surfaces like couches, and drunken, drugged, obese or smoking adults. "The [American]Academy [of Pediatrics]decided that rather than highlight risk groups, they made a blanket statement: Don't bed-share," says Dr. Judith Owens of the Brown Medical School and director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, R.I.

"About 80 per cent of the rest of the world bed-shares," Dr. Owen adds. "And SIDS rates are lower in Asian countries, where bed-sharing is very common."

Dr. MacFarlane notes that the American advisory ignores poverty, multiculturalism and human history before the advent of the five-bedroom monster home. Early humans didn't "put their child in the adjacent cave," he says.

The new U.S. warning provoked a debate last October at a symposium Dr. MacFarlane organized in Toronto on pediatric sleep-wake disorders. "You can't just make white Anglo-Saxon culture the norm," he says, citing a traditional Korean proverb: "A baby must not sleep in an empty room alone, and an adult must keep watch next to it."

Julie Wu, a Toronto mother who moved here from China nearly three years ago, says Chinese people often bed-share. "It's because we adore our children," says Ms. Wu, who sleeps with her 20-month-old son, Roger, while relegating her husband to the dining room. Back in China, her brother slept with his daughter until she was 9 or 10. And another brother there sleeps alone while his wife and prepubescent daughter share a bed.

Adding to the confusion, Dr. Richard Ferber, a leading pediatric-sleep guru, recently softened his long-time prohibition on bed-sharing.

In his 1985 bestseller Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, he warned: "Even if you and your child seem happy about sharing your bed at night . . . in the long run this habit will probably not be good for either of you." But at the Toronto symposium, he relented on "lifestyle or cultural bed-sharing," Dr. MacFarlane says.

Dr. Ferber, head of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital in Boston, declined interview requests pending publication this spring of a new edition of his book.

In Toronto, Marcia Cunningham says her whole family -- two parents and two kids -- sleeps in a king-sized bed. And they do the same at their cottage. Bed-sharing facilitates breast-feeding Elliana, who just turned 1. And this way Isaac, who is turning 4, doesn't feel sibling jealousy.

Isaac already has his own bed, which also happens to be in the master bedroom. But he doesn't actually sleep in it. He just likes to show it off to visitors, like a prized toy. The rare time the single bed gets used is when Isaac's dad, Lance Lehman, a Toronto lawyer, comes home late. "He's not going to climb in bed with us. We're all sprawled out," says Ms. Cunningham, 34, a stay-at-home mom who quit her job in marketing.

The only time she regrets the family bed is when the children throw up. "That's the one downfall. Everybody has to get up to change the sheets. As a result, I think my son's really good at hitting the bucket."

Ms. Cunningham isn't worried about adverse impact on her children's development. Her husband slept with his parents until he was 8, sometimes in their bed, sometimes in a sleeping bag on the floor. "And he's very independent."

A 2002 U.S. study that followed subjects from birth to the age of 18 found that those who slept with their parents -- including some up until 11 -- suffered no long-term impact on their psycho-sexual development.

Another U.S. survey found that adults who slept with their parents when they were children had significantly higher self-esteem, greater intimacy and, for the men, increased frequency of sexual activity.

Conversely, a study of middle-class English children showed that children who never slept in their parents' bed were harder to control, less happy and more fearful and had more tantrums.

Peter Routledge, a Toronto bond-rater who grew up in Montreal and Bellevue, Wash., slept with his parents until he was 10. "It was more of an open-door policy. They'd lie with my brother and me, and fall asleep."

Now, Mr. Routledge and his wife, Diane, sleep with their 22-month-old son, Aidan, who occupies the centre of their king-sized bed. "It's a pain when he goes horizontal -- you get foot-in-face," says Mr. Routledge, 38.

Mrs. Routledge, 44, says that, at first, their baby slept alone. But then they found everyone slept better when together.

"We waited a few months. We didn't want to smother him," Mr. Routledge says.

Mrs. Routledge, a stay-at-home mom, says: "It just evolved. But now he sleeps with us all the time."

Indeed, many families start co-sleeping out of sheer desperation. "We do the whole musical-bed thing," says Renée Torrington, whose three daughters, 3, 6 and 8, crawl into bed with her several times a week. "It puts them at peace," says Mrs. Torrington, a former actress who sells outdoor-seasonal items on The Shopping Channel.

When the children are sick, she'll go into their beds. When she's outnumbered, her husband, Sean Torrington, a firefighter in Markham, Ont., helps out. "He'll go into one room and I'll go into the other."

Desperation is how Ira Basen and Lynn Mendelson started. "I'm embarrassed because we didn't really do it out of love and nearness, but really lazy parenting," says Ms. Mendelson, 53, a caterer. "I didn't like kids crying."

They let their first child, then their second, their third, and finally their fourth child into their double bed in their Toronto home. "I believe I got crowded out with the second one," says Mr. Basen, 55, a CBC producer and co-author of The Book of Lists.

When the third child came along, the first two children decided that the family bed was too crowded. "They basically walked out, holding each other's hands and went downstairs. They came back and visited us," Ms. Mendelson says.

She says she suffered transient nerve damage in one arm because her third child had a big head and always slept in the crook of her right arm.

"We used to call the crib 'the prop.' We kept it, even though we moved three times and we never used it," she adds.

Meanwhile, Mr. Basen moved downstairs with the first two girls. The third child was booted out by the fourth child. "That's when I moved back in," Mr. Basen says, adding that by then he and his wife had acquired a queen-sized bed.

Mr. Basen calls their co-sleeping arrangements "the great untold secret.

"I can't believe I'm telling you this," he says. "You get hung up on it. It seems like it shouldn't be right. But to me, it's all about the sleep. My philosophy is everybody needed to get a good night's sleep."

Their children are now 13, 16, 18 and 19. They aren't scarred, but perhaps their parents are. "I still hear them," Ms. Mendelson says. "And one of my kids lives in Vancouver."

Jan Wong is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail.

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