I wanted to write about the importance of safe co-sleeping and bed-sharing and also dispel any myths associated with it. Many families either believe it is unsafe or don’t fully understand its benefits and aren’t open to it, or alternatively, they don’t take proper safety precautions and put their babies at risk.
What is the difference between co-sleeping and bed-sharing?
Many terms related to infant sleep are used interchangeably, which can create confusion. API (Attachment Parenting International) uses the following definitions:
- Co-sleeping refers to sleeping in “close proximity,” which means the child is on a separate sleep surface in the same room as the parents. This includes the use of a co-sleeping bassinet or “sidecar,” which is a crib-like bed with only three walls, with the fourth side remaining open and pushed up against the parents’ bed. For the older child, this can include sleeping in a separate bed in the same room as the parents, or two or more older siblings sleeping together in a separate room.
- Bed-sharing, also called the “family bed,” describes a sleep arrangement where the family members sleep on the same sleep surface. This practice is recommended for breastfeeding families using safe sleep guidelines. Co-sleeping is a safer option for bottle or formula feeding families.
What is safe bed-sharing?
If you decide to bed-share, here are some guidelines to follow.
- Remove pillows, fluffy blankets, duvets and stuffed animals from the bed. These pose a suffocation hazard and can also cause babies to overheat. All bedding should be tight fitting to the mattress. A light blanket is fine ensuring it is kept away from baby’s face. Using your judgment, adult bedding can be reintroduced with caution when baby is at least 12 months old.
- Dress yourself and baby warmly (but not too warm) so that additional blankets don’t need to be used.
- Keep the room temperature on the cooler side. 65-68°F is perfect.
- Use a guard rail of some kind. It is best to pull the bed off its frame with the box spring and mattress on the floor in the center of the room. Bed frames can have gaps between the mattress and the frame (head board and/or foot board) in which a baby could slip and suffocate.
- Have babies sleep on their backs between mom and the wall or guard rail. Husbands and partners don’t have the same innate awareness of baby in the bed as mom does.
- Make sure there are no cracks, crevices or gaps anywhere in the bed that baby could get stuck in.
- Tie back long hair and remove any clothes or jewelry that could be a potential choking or entanglement hazard.
- Sleep with baby on a firm mattress. No airbeds, water beds or memory foam.
- Share sleep on a couch, recliner or chair. This is not safe because it is very easy for baby to roll off or become trapped between cushions and suffocate.
- Sleep baby next to your partner, a pet or an older sibling. When baby gets older, at least 12 months of age, sleeping alongside a sibling is fine. Use your own judgment as to when this will be safe.
- Wear scents to bed as fragrances can impact baby’s breathing.
- Sleep with baby if you are extremely exhausted.
- Sleep with baby if you are an exceptionally deep sleeper or an extremely obese parent as it is more difficult to feel exactly how close baby is. It has been shown that bottle feeding mothers tend to have less awareness of baby’s position in the bed as well. Co-sleeping is a safer option for these scenarios.
- Sleep with baby if you have been drinking alcohol, taking drugs or taking medications that could impair your awareness of baby in bed or make it difficult to be roused.
- Sleep with baby if you smoked during pregnancy or currently smoke, regardless of whether or not you smoke in the same room as you sleep as this greatly increases the risk of SIDS.
For more information, visit Attachment Parenting International’s Infant Sleep Safety page.
Does bed-sharing cause SIDS?
Recently, there have been efforts by various medical and professional organizations to discourage parents from sleeping with their children for fear that it contributes to an increase in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). However, research demonstrates that bed-sharing, when practiced by informed parents, can be safe and beneficial. In fact, many cultures where parents routinely sleep with their children report some of the lowest SIDS rates and in some of these cultures, SIDS is non-existent. Studies led by Dr. James McKenna support this. “The sensory-rich sleep environment of bed sharing, which leads to more frequent arousals during deep sleep and more light sleep, from which it is easier for the infant to arouse, appears to confer a survival advantage for children at risk of SIDS” (McKenna, 1996; McKenna and Mosko, 1990; McKenna et al., 1993).
Will co-sleeping or bed-sharing disturb my sleep?
Everybody actually gets more sleep. Co-sleeping and bed-sharing babies tend to be more settled at night generally because their need to be close to mom is continuously being met. More settled babies = more well-rested parents. Moms and babies who bed-share are also more in sync with each other’s wake and sleep rhythms, making it easier for mom to tend to baby when both wake.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding and bed-sharing?
Breastfeeding is much easier when bed-sharing. Instead of getting out of bed throughout the night to feed, simply put baby to breast and go back to sleep. Many moms and babies “dream-feed” and sleep right through the baby feeding. Breastfeeding at night also helps to maintain your milk supply when prolactin levels are highest.
Will co-sleeping or bed-sharing ruin my relationship or marriage?
Co-sleeping and baby-sharing probably save more relationships and marriages than it ‘ruins.’ For bed-sharing families, there are plenty of other places in the house other than bed that are suitable for marital activities. And besides, co-sleeping and bed-sharing mamas are more likely to be well rested – and therefore more likely to have the energy to or want to engage in those activities!
Will co-sleeping or bed-sharing make my baby spoiled or too dependent?
It’s important to note that infant solitary sleep is a relatively new practice that has evolved in the western world only within the last 100 years. Babies have been cradled tightly in mother’s womb their whole lives. Sharing a bed with mom is soothing, comforting, and helps their transition from being within mom to living in the world. Babies have needs at night just as they do during the day. From hunger, loneliness and fear, to feeling too cold or too hot. They need the reassurance of a loving parent to feel secure during the night. For more information, read What are the long term effects on my baby of sharing a bed? by Dr. James McKenna.
If you become frustrated with frequent waking or are sleep-deprived you may be tempted to try sleep training techniques that recommend letting a baby cry in an effort to “teach” baby to “self-soothe.” New research suggests that these techniques can have detrimental physiological effects on the baby by increasing the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, with potential long term effects to emotional regulation, sleep patterns and behavior. An infant is not neurologically or developmentally capable of calming or soothing himself to sleep in a way that is healthy. The part of the brain that helps with self-soothing isn’t well developed until the child is two and a half to three years of age. Until that time, a child depends on the parents to help calm down and learn to regulate intense feelings. If you are considering sleep training, please read Dr. Jay Gordon’s sleep method in his article Sleep, Changing Patterns in the Family Bed.
I personally believe bed-sharing is a wonderful way to bond with baby and has many benefits. It was especially invaluable when I was breastfeeding and working outside of the home. That nursing and snuggle time was so precious and strengthened and preserved the special connection between me and my son. However, I am aware that this is one of those issues that can make people feel attacked. Please know it is not my intention to tell you what is right or wrong – only you can decide what is best for your individual and unique family. Also, don’t be hard on yourself if you tried it and didn’t like it or if you can’t do it due to medical reasons or for any other reason.
Image via Fabrizio Salvetti