Co-Sleeping: Should Parents Share a Bed with Their Baby?

To share a bed or not to share a bed – that is the question asked by many parents. Co-sleeping, or bed-sharing, has become a hot-button issue among parents, and there are very passionate people on both sides of the fence.

While the decision is ultimately a personal one, it’s important to weigh the advantages and potential drawbacks of sharing a bed with your newborn.

What is Co-Sleeping?

Co-sleeping can cover a variety of different sleeping arrangements, including:

  • Bed-sharing: Parents and child share the same bed.
  • Separate beds, same room: The child’s bed, bassinet is in the same room as the parents’ bed.
  • Sidecar: The crib is attached to one side of the parents’ bed, next to the mother. The side next to the parent’s bed is lowered or removed to allow for easy access to the baby.
  • Child welcomed as needed: The child/baby has his own bedroom, but is permitted to sleep in the parents’ bed at any time.

Bed-sharing is exactly what it sounds like: mom, dad and baby share a bed. New research shows that the practice is entirely natural, and can offer many benefits when done safely and under the appropriate conditions.

Mother-infant contact during sleep is common among primates and prosimians (tarsiers, lemurs, lorises), and co-sleeping among them has an 80-million-year pedigree.

Co-sleeping isn’t for everyone. There are benefits and potential drawbacks to sharing a bed or room with your child.

The Benefits of Co-Sleeping

Co-sleeping arrangements offer many benefits to both the child and the parents.

Better Quality of Sleep

Typically, co-sleeping arrangements provide a better overall quality of sleep. Infants who co-sleep fall asleep more quickly, and they stay asleep for longer. The baby may start stirring when she needs to nurse, but because mom is right nearby, she can breastfeed and soothe her back to sleep before she fully wakes up.

Mothers who co-sleep typically feel better rested.

Breastfeeding is Easier

Co-sleeping arrangements make it easier for moms to breastfeed in the middle of the night. Moms don’t have to leave their beds, so they can fall right back asleep.

Breastfeeding at night helps moms maintain their milk supply, and night nursing may also prolong the child-spacing effects of breastfeeding.

Less Risk for SIDS

According to a 2005 study published in Paediatric Respiratory Reviews, babies who co-sleep may be at a lower risk of SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, than babies who sleep alone. The lowest rates of SIDS coincide with the highest rates of co-sleeping.

Research from Dr. James J. McKenna, director of the Center for Behavioral Studies of Mother-Infant Sleep at Notre Dame University, suggests that sleeping next to a parent helps encourage healthy breathing patterns for the baby. The amount of CO2 mom or dad expires in their breath can act as a potential backup if the baby’s own breathing ability fluctuates or starts to slow down. Theoretically, the baby’s nasal area should respond to the presence of CO2 by breathing faster.

McKenna writes in his book, Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping, that babies who breastfeed and sleep with their mothers spend more time in sleep stages one and two. These lighter sleep stages are thought to be more physiologically beneficial for babies than stages three and four. Arousal is more difficult in these deeper sleep stages, which can lead to SIDS.

More Confident Kids

Dr. William Sears says that children who co-sleep are more confident, have less anxiety and are overall more well-adjusted than children who don’t co-sleep. These benefits are attributed to increasing bonding and attachment that occurs when sharing a sleeping space.

Knowing a parent is nearby helps the child feel safe. Babies can internalize this environment and feeling, which can develop into their worldview. 

The Potential Dangers of Bed-Sharing

An estimated 3,500 infants die each year from sleep-related incidents, including SIDS, and accidental strangulation and suffocation caused by co-sleeping arrangements.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents to share rooms with their babies, but they don’t recommend sharing a bed with an infant. Co-sleeping, they argue, can be dangerous.

It is very possible for parents to roll over onto the baby, causing suffocation or serious injury.

Co-sleeping isn’t for everyone. Parents should not share a bed with their baby if they:

  • Have sleep disorders
  • Are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications that affect their sleep
  • Are extremely obese
  • Sleep on a waterbed or soft bedding near the baby

Here are some safety tips for parents who want to try a co-sleeping arrangement:

  • The baby should be on his back sleeping on a firm surface with a tight-fitting sheet. Stay away from soft bedding, including pillows, blankets and soft toys.
  • There should be no spaces between the mattress and the headboard, walls or side rails.
  • Babies should never sleep on a couch, sofa, recliner, futon or other surface where the baby can slip into a crevice or become wedged against the back of a chair.

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