Med thumb step brothers

For as long as she can remember, LaToya Edwards preferred her brother’s bed to her own. “It wasn’t anxiety, or about comfort, or being scared of the boogeyman,” she says. “It’s just where I chose to sleep.”

Aside from their mother’s observation that Edwards would be “hogging 90 percent of the bed,” with her sibling sometimes winding up on the floor, it appeared to be a workable arrangement. The two remain close, especially considering they’re ten years apart. (Her brother is the eldest.) But how much of that is attributable to their sleep habits? And what part of her personality is a result of those years spent climbing out of her own bed?  

While “co-sleeping” remains a topic of debate among anthropologists and behavioral researchers, very little of it relates to siblings sharing beds. Most studies are focused on parents sleeping with their infants and the accompanying marriage and safety issues that presents.

“We don’t really have any idea how common it is,” says Susan McHale, Ph.D., Director, Social Science Research Institute at Penn State University. “But one school of thought is that having kids sleep apart is what’s really unusual.”

That’s because the luxury of three, four or five-bedroom houses has only recently become realized in 20th-century construction. In other cultures, co-sleeping or bed-sharing remains a constant: 53 percent of seven-year-old children in China share a bed; in Egyptian villages, it’s common for entire families to share rooms, with parents and infants on a mattress and older siblings dozing on a floor mat. Centuries earlier, sharing a bed for body warmth was a matter of survival.  

“We don’t really have any idea how common it is,” says Susan McHale, Ph.D., Director, Social Science Research Institute at Penn State University. “But one school of thought is that having kids sleep apart is what’s really unusual.”

Modern-day America doesn’t present quite as dire a situation. Bed-sharing typically takes two forms: voluntary (for comfort) or involuntary (small house, big family). While there’s no proof sharing a bed as a result of economic hardship results in any resentment or strained relations down the line, it can obviously inhibit privacy and a sense of “owning” one’s space.

Edwards, however, chose to get up from bed and join her brother, often waking up in the night to switch rooms. She says — and McHale agrees — it was an issue of preference rather than anxiety. “It’s inherent in people to seek contact and comfort,” McHale says. “A younger sibling seeking out an older sibling for that is perfectly natural.”

Barry Hewlett, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington Vancouver, co-authored a paper in 2014 that examined the sleeping habits of two distinct tribes in Central Africa: the farming people of the Ngandu and the hunter/gatherers of the Aka. The Aka were more familial, closer in both emotion and physical space, and children frequently shared beds with family. Hewlett observed that the Ngandu, which didn’t display the same habits, were seemingly more fearful and less trusting of their environment. The tribe also seemed less comfortable with intimacy and more emotional in pre-adolescence. Those who co-slept were the opposite — optimistic, eager to share and affectionate.

“For the Aka, co-sleeping is normative,” Hewlett says. “Ninety, 95 percent do it. It seemed important in the development of trust of others over those who do not co-sleep.”

It’s important to note that because of their modest surroundings, the Aka can easily make new bedding arrangements — co-sleeping is usually by choice, with parents acknowledging wherever the children slept was up to the child.

While Hewlett’s research had positive correlates, there’s little evidence that pre-adolescent bed-sharing has any negative consequences. But one downside, McHale believes, comes when the arrangement impacts sleep quality.

In a study of Egyptian households, co-sleeping resulted in delayed sleep onset and shorter sleep duration. “The trade-off might be closeness instead of a better night’s sleep,” McHale says. (Paradoxically, anxious sleepers can have fewer arousals if they’re sharing a bed.) While not specifically directed at siblings, research has proven sleep quality in childhood has cognitive, social and academic implications.

Kate Roberts, Ph.D., a child and family psychologist, is slightly less bullish on siblings piled atop the same mattress. “There can be a lack of autonomy” in certain cases, she says. “If one sibling is coming into another’s bed who doesn’t need the support, they might have resentment. And if you begin to compare yourself to families that don’t do it, you might begin to feel different.”

Psychologists assert co-sleepers are more likely to cope with sharing personal space as they get older and are more capable of working through issues.

Some psychologists assert co-sleepers are more likely to cope with sharing personal space as they get older and are more capable of working through issues. (It’s difficult to ignore personality clashes when you’re inches apart.) They’re also, McHale believes, less shell-shocked when it comes time to share a room in college. “That can be really hard for someone used to having their own space,” she says.

Edwards now has two boys of her own, born less than three years apart. One day, she found the older boy had crawled into bed with his younger brother. “The oldest is on the outside, and the youngest is in the safer part of the bed,” she says. “I think it’s helped their relationship.”  

Industrialized Western culture, Hewlett believes, has pre-empted this basic human trait. “Part of the point of [our] paper is that it’s something we’ve moved away from due to particular changes in physical and social settings. “Sibling co-sleeping, to me,” he says, “is part of human nature.”