Skeptics about this practice tend to have two basic arguments. First, it is hard for them to understand how a couple can continue to be physically intimate if there is a child sleeping there in the same bed. Second, they believe that leaving children alone, particularly during sleep time, is vital to their ability to learn independence and self-reliance.
If your child is truly scared or has night terrors, meaning he wakes up screaming uncontrollably, you need to comfort him without hesitation. Fear is different than waking up and your child needs to know he is safe and that you are nearby to take care of him.
The answer to the first question is determined by the individual couple. Usually, the child does have a separate place to sleep. Because children usually go to bed before adults, parents put the child to sleep in his own bed, leaving them free to enjoy a little alone time in bed together if they wish. It is also common for the “family bed” to consist of the grownup bed plus a crib or an extension (called a co-sleeper) that is pulled up to the side. Obviously, this arrangement does take thought and planning, as well as the enthusiastic agreement of both parents. It is important to make sure that you do continue to connect as a couple and that having a child in your bed does not lead you to neglect your relationship.
Having babies or young children in your bed also doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. You might choose to let her sleep with you on some nights, but also encourage her to sleep on her own during other nights. Some children, if they know sleeping with you is an option, won't need it as much as others.
As far as the second objection goes, some Western parents — and children — put tremendous value on the intimacy and connectedness they get from sharing sleep. As a consequence, they don't worry about the messages this country sends to parents who sleep with their children (They'll never be independent! They'll never get out of your bed!). The truth is that no matter how much your children enjoy sleeping with you when they are young, they will eventually want privacy and more space. Sooner or later, they will end up sleeping in their own beds.
Transitioning to a Separate Bed
If your child is sleeping in the family bed now, chances are that she has slept there since soon after she was born. You have established a shared sleep routine that accommodates her need for security and comfort as well as your need for privacy and adult alone time. The question now is when you should start thinking about letting her get used to sleeping in her own bed.
There are many opinions on the potential harm and/or benefit that come from independent sleep. Some books raise dire warnings about failing to teach a child how to get through the night alone, while others counsel against giving your child the feeling you have abandoned him. The truth is somewhere in between, at a point that differs for every child and every family. You know your child better than anyone else. Rather than letting yourself be swayed by theories of experts who have never met you or your child, use your own powers of observation to tell you when your child has matured to the point that independent sleep is a bigger benefit than sleep with you.
The answer might turn out to be very practical: As children grow older, they grow more active in their sleep. If your one-year-old kicks and thrashes through the night, he may be resting just fine while you are losing a lot of valuable sleep. If that's the case, it's time for him to move on and let you have your comfortable bed back to yourselves.