The Truth About Co-Sleeping

What are the advantages and disadvantages of co-sleeping (having baby share a bed with parents)? Is it safe for baby to co-sleep in the first place? Today, we’ll break down the truth about co-sleeping.

Few parenting decisions are as polarizing as how to put baby to bed --- particularly co-sleeping, or when parents share the adult bed with their baby.

Why might parents choose co-sleeping, and what advantages could it bring? What are disadvantages of co-sleeping, and is it safe to co-sleep in the first place? Today, we’ll break down the truth about co-sleeping for parents.

Why Some Parents Choose Co-Sleeping

Parents turn to co-sleeping for several reasons. Here are some of the most commonly mentioned benefits of co-sleeping:

It fosters natural closeness: Keeping your little one close at night can be one way to bond with your little one, especially if you work and don't see them as often during the day.

Breastfeeding at night is easier: When a breastfeeding mom sleeps in the same bed as baby, it's much easier for her to feed baby in the middle of the night --- and it often minimizes sleep disruptions for both mom and baby, as there's no reason for either to move from bed.

It could potentially help baby regulate breathing and heart rate: According to a co-sleeping study by anthropologist and baby sleep expert James McKenna, PhD. (University of Notre Dame), breastfed babies' heart rates slow down when co-sleeping with their mothers, a sign that they are more relaxed. Their mothers' breathing helps stimulate their own breathing, and relaxes them because it sounds similar to the swooshing sounds they heard in the womb.

It soothes baby: The closeness of their parents can sometimes help baby fall and stay asleep more easily.

It's a common practice in many cultures: Worldwide, many cultures have encouraged parents to co-sleep with their babies for thousands of years. Many cultures believe that it's cruel to separate mother and child, or that co-sleeping helps babies feel more secure.

Why Co-Sleeping Is Unsafe

Despite all of these potential benefits, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has deemed co-sleeping unsafe, particularly for the youngest babies.

As the AAP states, sharing the bed with baby increases the risk of infant death, including sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), strangulation and suffocation. This is because a moving adult, bedding, or other objects could unintentionally impair a baby's breathing.

For babies younger than 4 months of age, SIDS risk increases by five times if baby shares a bed with someone. Given this, the AAP warns, "You should not bed share with your baby if your baby is younger than 4 months old."

There are also several other risk factors that can make co-sleeping especially dangerous.

Do not co-sleep if:

  • Baby is younger than 4 months of age
  • Baby was born prematurely
  • Baby had a low birth weight
  • The person baby would share the bed with smokes
  • Baby's biological mother smoked while pregnant with baby
  • The person baby would share the bed with drank alcohol recently
  • The person baby would share the bed with uses drugs
  • The person baby would share the bed with took a sedative or other medicine that makes them prone to drowsiness (that would make it more difficult to wake)
  • There are heavy blankets on the bed, as loose bedding increases SIDS risk
  • There are soft pillows anywhere on the bed, or any pillows very close to baby, as loose objects like pillows increase SIDS risk
  • The mattress is too soft and sinks down --- another SIDS risk, as this could make breathing difficult for baby
  • Baby would be sleeping with anyone other than their parent(s)
  • Baby (or someone they would share the bed with) is sick
  • Baby would be sleeping with parents on a sofa, recliner, waterbed, or chair

Making The Right Decision For Your Little One

But what if your baby is older than 4 months old, and none of the other above factors put baby at increased risk?

Although the AAP asserts that co-sleeping is unsafe for any baby, parents of lower-risk babies might still decide to weigh the benefits against the risks when deciding whether to co-sleep.

After all, many studies that show the dangers of bed-sharing examined lower-risk and higher-risk babies together, rather than making separate recommendations for each risk category.

Even so, remember that co-sleeping always comes with risks that you can't remove --- today's adult beds weren't made for babies, and usually have loose bedding and pillows that are unsafe for your little one.

Also, keep in mind that if you continue co-sleeping too long, it might also cause your little one to develop a habit of needing you in bed to sleep --- a habit they may potentially have trouble shaking as they grow. They may even get anxious as you try to wean them off of co-sleeping as you get older.

And regardless of whether your little one develops this sleeping "crutch," bed-sharing can sometimes lead to lost sleep for you as the parents, even if your little one sleeps well.

Room-Sharing: A Way To Reap Co-Sleeping Benefits More Safely

Room-sharing (where baby sleeps in their own crib or bassinet, positioned in your room and close to your bed) offers many of the same bonding and soothing benefits as co-sleeping.

Plus, room-sharing is safer, and creates an independent sleeping space for your little one while still keeping them close.

There are even ways to move or push baby's separate sleep surface right up to your bed, so you are at close as possible to baby without bed-sharing.

There's a reason why room-sharing is sometimes called "separate-surface co-sleeping!"

Dr. Jamie Kondis of St.Louis Children's Hospital explains why room-sharing is much safer than traditional co-sleeping:

The AAP recommends room-sharing, while keeping baby on their own sleep surface, for their first year of life (or at least for their first six months of life.) According to the AAP, "Room sharing... can decrease the risk of SIDS by as much as 50% and... will make it easier for you to feed, comfort, and watch your baby."

If baby needs to nurse or bottle feed, it's still relatively easy to attend to their needs when you room share.

You can even still nurse your baby while in bed, to give them added comfort. And nursing baby in bed is still much safer than sitting on cushioned furniture, if you think you might fall asleep. As Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, M.D., FAAP (Task Force on SIDS) shared with Parents, "If you think that there's even the slightest possibility that you may fall asleep during a feeding, feed your baby on your bed, rather than a sofa or cushioned chair."

When room-sharing, it's also said that baby learns to react to other people's movements, sounds, touches, smells, and heat. The presence of their parents and the sensory stimuli they create is said to help develop baby's senses, according to Dr. McKenna. And for that to happen, it doesn't matter if baby's in the same bed or on a sleeping surface of their own.

Most importantly, keeping baby in the same room means it's easier to help them if you hear that they are in distress.

Safe Sleep Practices For Babies

No matter how you choose to put baby to bed, be sure to take these safe sleep precautions:

  • Make sure baby always sleeps on their back --- never on their stomach or side.
  • Only let baby sleep on a firm mattress.
  • Baby should never be covered with blankets while they sleep. They should only sleep on a tightly fitted sheet.
  • Baby's sleeping area should be clear of all loose bedding and pillows.

And if you do decide to co-sleep:

  • Make sure that any parents sharing the bed with baby are fully aware that baby will be sleeping in the adult bed during that night.
  • It's safer to keep baby on the side of one parent, rather than in between both parents.
  • The only bedding present should be lighter sheets, on the adults only. Keep all bedding and pillows away from baby.
  • Tie up long hair, so it is not a strangulation risk.

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