The Family Bed in Islam
by Maria Hussain, a freelance writer from New Jersey
"Modern" parents try to put the baby to sleep in a crib away from human touch. The parents will then spend countless nights awake, coaxing their baby to sleep, only to have him wake up as soon as he is put down in the crib. In order that the baby will stop disturbing the parents' sleep, it is considered necessary for children to develop "independence" at an early age. That is why doctors in the West push parents to teach the baby to sleep through the night alone, which can only be done by teaching the baby that no one is available. The standard American baby handbook, What to Expect the First Year (Eisenberg) advises:
"If you can tolerate an hour or more of vigorous crying and screaming, don't go to the baby, soothe him, feed him, or talk to him when he wakes up in the middle of the night. Just let him cry until he's exhausted himself-and the possibility, in his mind, that he's going to get anywhere, or anyone, by crying-and has fallen back to sleep. The next night do the same; the crying will almost certainly last a shorter time…You may find that earplugs, the whir of the fan, or the hum of voices or music on the radio or TV can take the edge off the crying without blocking it out entirely. If you have an intercom from the baby's room, the magnified crying may be particularly grating. You can reduce that problem by turning it off when the crying starts. If baby is truly hysterical, you may hear him anyway. If you can't hear him at all, set a minute timer for twenty minutes. When the buzzer rings, turn the intercom back on to see if he's still at it. Repeat this every twenty minutes until the crying stops."
Is it any wonder that American youth feel alienated and depressed? Today's young people are characterized by a lack of connection with the home and family and a deep insecurity about whether they are loved. This feeling of distance from others is most likely something which started at infancy. If we gave our child the message since he was a baby that we are only available if and when it is convenient to us, who can blame them when they have problems later on in his life. If feels afraid and alone, it will not occur to him to ask his parents for advice, but he will instead turn to love substitutes and develop bad habits. Could you respect someone who sat by and knew you were crying and didn't try to help you solve the problem?
As Muslims, we want to create a strong emotional bond with our children that will last into our old age, when we will become dependent upon our children to take care of us, as Islam demands. We definitely do not want to give our children the message that we were not available when they needed us.
Some parental advocates are starting to wake up to the dangers of isolating a baby in this way. According to SIDS researcher James J. McKenna,
"Nighttime parent-infant co-sleeping during at least the first year of life is the universal, species-wide normative context for infant sleep, to which both parents and infants are biologically and psychosocially adapted…Solitary infant sleep is an exceedingly recent, novel, and alien experience for the human infant - a sensory - deprived microenvironment for which not all infants are equally prepared biologically."
Research reveals lower Sudden Infant Death (SID) rates in cultures where mothers sleep in close proximity to or in contact with their infants during the first year of life (Mothering, No. 62, Winter 92). Babies are less likely to mysteriously stop breathing when they are in close contact with another human being, especially the mother. This disproves the idea that the danger of rolling on top of one's baby and smothering them justifies depriving the child of your warmth. This tragedy occurs very rarely, and usually it involves parental use of drugs or alcohol putting the parent into a deep sleep. Under healthy circumstances, a mother is highly tuned into her baby even in sleep. She would be no more likely to roll over on top of her baby and not notice them struggling to squirm free than she would be likely to roll over and fall off the bed. Most infant smothering happens when a baby is laying face down in a thick quilt.
Statistically, a baby is actually more likely to die when left alone in their crib where no one notices them. In the entire kingdom of nature, no mother sleeps away from her infant, leaving it defenseless against predators. All mammal babies sleep curled up next to their mothers, suckling sweetly. If a baby cries in the night, it is because they want their mama! Who can blame them? Close physical contact is also essential to the swift recovery of a premature infant. It is recommended for weak and small babies to be held skin to skin with a parent for several hours a day. This is called the "kangaroo hold" and can be done by keeping him in a sling under your shirt or jacket (leaving ample breathing room) during the day.
A Muslim mother is available to her child. A Muslim father is available to his child. We know that with parent-child attachment comes the emotional security that is necessary for developing a healthy inner self-confidence. The message we want to get across to our child is, "If you have a problem, come to me. If you are afraid, tell me about it. If you are lonely, I am here." We are not interested in cultivating independence before the child is ready for it.
The Holy Prophet prescribed separating the children in their beds by the age of ten:
"Order your children to observe Salat when they reach the age of seven and spank them for not observing it when they reach the age of ten, and arrange their beds (for sleeping) separately." (Abu Dawud)
This hadith implies that before the age of moral reason, small children are not required to sleep alone. Islam has no prohibitions against parents sleeping in the same bed with a small child. In practice, a Muslim baby should sleep with its parents, especially while they are still breastfeeding. Since the father is usually only home at night, being near the baby during sleep is beneficial to the bonding process. Sleeping with their mother also gives the baby the opportunity to nurse on demand, which is important for Muslim mothers wishing to complete the full term as prescribed by Allah.
"… His mother bears him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning takes two years - Be grateful to Me and to your parents." (Quran 31:14)
Compare the two situations: A child cries in the night. The mother pulls them to her breast, with both drifting back to sleep next to each other. And, a child cries in the night. Mother or father gets out of bed, warms a bottle, and brings it to the child. Parents take turns rocking the baby back to sleep, slowly put him down, and tiptoe away from the crib. Which couple got the most sleep? Experienced mothers know that an infant will sleep soundly through the night as long as they can smell their mother nearby and feel her warmth, and if they awaken hungry in the night, they will only cry for a second until the child finds the breast and nurses back to sleep. There is no stress on the mother, disturbing of the overworked father, getting up out of bed, or tears in the night. Sleeping with a small child gives them the security that you are there. As far as the baby is concerned, they are completely happy.
As a baby grows into a child, their need to be near others while they are sleeping does not go away. Those children who have been trained to sleep in their own beds will still find countless ways to disrupt their parents' sleep, requesting glasses of water, trips to the washroom, somebody to close the closet door, check under the bed for monsters, etc. I recall many nights in my own childhood lying awake in bed, obsessing and panicking about the concept of death and other heavy issues, but knowing I was not to disturb my parents. Patrick C. Friman, a clinical psychologist and director of clinical services for a boy's counseling center explains, "It's not pathological, it's not a disease, and it's common in industrialized cultures," where children usually sleep apart from parents (NJ Star-Ledger).
Children come up with these ploys because they are frightened of how it feels to be alone, drifting into unconsciousness. Instead of engaging in power struggles with small children over intimate issues, parents can opt to allow the child back into their bed even if he/she has their own bed as long as they are under the age of reason. This differs according to each child. The hadith mentioned above points to 7 - 10 as a maximum age, although another hadith from Abu Dawud describes the age of reason as the time when a child can distinguish his right hand from his left.
Newlyweds, when planning your marital bedroom furniture, consider buying a king-sized futon to lie on the floor. That will serve you for years to come as a child-safe family bed, where the father will have room to snuggle with mother and baby rather than being banished to the couch, as often happens when new parents discover that the baby doesn't want to sleep in their crib and takes over the honeymoon bed. Even if you don't plan to have children immediately, a large bed is still a very comfortable sleeping option and it will save you time and effort in the future.