Sleep and arousal patterns of co-sleeping human mother/infant pairs: a preliminary physiological study with implications for the study of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Am J Phys Anthropol. 1990 Nov;83(3):331-47. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.1330830307.


The prevailing research design for studying infant sleep erroneously assumes the species-wide normalcy of solitary nocturnal sleep rather than a social sleeping environment. In fact, current clinical perspectives on infant sleep, which are based exclusively on studies of solitary sleeping infants, may partly reflect culturally induced rather than species-typical infant sleep patterns which can only be gleaned, we contend here, from infants sleeping with their parents--the context within which, and for well over 4 million years, the hominid infant's sleep, breathing, and arousal patterns evolved. Our physiological study of five co-sleeping mother-infant pairs in a sleep lab is the first study of its kind to document the unfolding sleep patterns of mothers and infants sleeping in physical contact. Our data show that co-sleeping mothers and infants exhibit synchronous arousals, which, because of the suspected relationship between arousal and breathing stability in infants, have important implications for how we study environmental factors possibly related to some forms of the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). While our data show that co-sleeping mothers and infants also experience many moments of physiological independence from each other, it is clear that the temporal unfolding of particular sleep stages and awake periods of the mother and infant become entwined and that on a minute-to-minute basis, throughout the night, much sensory communication is occurring between them. Our research acknowledges the human infant's evolutionary past and considers the implications that nocturnal separation (a historically novel and alien experience for them) has for maternal and infant well-being in general and SIDS research strategies in particular.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Electrocardiography
  • Electroencephalography
  • Electromyography
  • Electrooculography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Stages / physiology
  • Sleep, REM / physiology
  • Sudden Infant Death / etiology*