Co-sleeping is a heavily debated topic that appears to be filled with a lot of confusion.
For simplicity, I will use co-sleeping as the umbrella term to describe a situation when a baby is sleeping in close proximity to the parent. I hear a variety of different things from moms, some defending themselves for why they choose to have their baby sleep in their bed (which we’ll call bed-sharing); others sound horrified that anyone would put their baby at such risk and that the only proper way is to have the baby in a crib. Parenting articles that describe research about co-sleeping provide no help and only fuel the fire around this hot button issue.
Here, I will explain the benefits and concerns of bed-sharing that I’ve heard most often, as well as the findings of research studies, to help you make a more informed decision on what the best sleeping arrangement is for moms and babies.
Benefits of co-sleeping:
Ease of breastfeeding
In a bed-sharing environment, when your baby fusses, they are in such close proximity that you can immediately respond to their needs. For breastfeeding mothers, this is great because you can breastfeed instantaneously. Alternatively, imagine that your baby boy is in his crib across the room from you or in his own room: you would have to get out of bed when you hear him fussing, you’d probably need to turn on a light to avoid stepping on a lego, and by the time you get to him, he may be pretty upset and crying. Hopefully you’re able to get to him quickly, but you’re likely sleep deprived and may take longer than usual to wake up. Then you would need to calm him down before you can start breastfeeding because when babies are really hungry or very upset, they have trouble latching on.
Once your baby is calmed down and feeding has started, you can calm yourself down too and turn off the lights. About a half hour later, your baby is finally back to sleep and you are able to crawl back in bed—only to be awoken a few hours later to a crying baby.
On the other hand, when your baby is in the same bed and starts to fuss, you will likely hear him before he his wailing, be able to wake up just enough to latch him on, and begin breastfeeding quickly.
In addition to quick and easy breastfeeding, many mothers say that both they and their baby get more sleep with bed-sharing. Since moms don’t need to get out of bed and fully wake up to breastfeed, they can often stay half asleep while their baby feeds. Similarly, the baby doesn’t have to get to the point of crying to wake their mom up when they are hungry. They are able to fuss just enough to wake their mom up to latch, and then start feeding.
Some moms find that bed-sharing is the only way they can get their baby to stay asleep.
These moms find that when they lay their baby down in the crib, they wake up as soon as mom starts to walk away. Attempt after attempt, and mom finally gives up, exhausted, and brings her equally as exhausted baby into bed with her. Both of them are, then, able to fall asleep, and stay asleep.
I completely understand why moms have chosen to bed-share with their baby, especially when breastfeeding, because their babies may need them multiple times throughout the night. Any extra sleep, for mom and baby, should be taken full advantage of.
For moms who are not breastfeeding, bed-sharing does not provide the same added benefit of extra sleep because a bottle would need to be prepared; nonetheless, another caregiver, like the dad, could help out with feedings during the night, allowing the mom to get some extra shut-eye. Some moms choose to formula feed during the day, but breastfeed at night for the ease and extra sleep that breastfeeding can offer.
Newborns often become overwhelmed with all of the sights and sounds of their new world, and they want the comforting feeling of being in utero to calm them down. Bed-sharing and being close to mom all night can provide that feeling. Creating this comforting environment creates a bond between a parent and child.
Parents who are able to be home with their infant all day can bond consistently throughout the day, while feeding, holding, playing, etc. For parents who have to be away all day, being close to them at night allows for that essential bonding time. Otherwise, these parents likely only get a few hours in the morning and another couple hours at night to try and create that bond. Babies need all the love and bonding they can get; so even if both parents are home loving on their baby all day, no baby will complain about getting some extra bonding time throughout the night.
Psychologists who study parenting and related theories have found that bed sharing can help create (what is known as) a secure attachment between parent and child. A secure attachment, the optimal form of attachment, is when a child feels safe in their environment and knows that their needs will be met.
With the major benefits as they are, it seems difficult to understand where the opposing side is coming from without hearing the concerns related to bed-sharing.
Concerns of co-sleeping
Recently, one of my Facebook friends posted a status that she wanted to “co-sleep” with her son because she felt it would be easier to feed and change him at night, but didn’t want to hear any disparaging opinions related to this controversy. She then commented that she had heard about co-sleeping and risk of SIDS, but she didn’t know anything more.
Where is this information coming from?
Well, it’s coming from popular articles like Today’s Parent titled “The Latest on Co-Sleeping and SIDS.” The article’s hook is “New research suggests a link between co-sleeping and SIDS.”
The article refers to studies, like one from the American Academy of Pediatrics, that found that “69% of infants who died from SIDS were bed-sharing at the time of death,” and another study found the statistic to be as high as 74% when looking at infants 4 months old or younger. With statistics as suggestive as these, no wonder parents are concerned about co-sleeping.
Having your child die of SIDS sounds terrifying and, despite the benefits of bed-sharing, many would think that the risk is far too high.
These statistics, however, can be misleading, which creates two problems.
The first issue is that many of these popular articles do not clearly define the difference between co-sleeping and bed-sharing, and use these terms interchangeably. Having your baby sleep in a crib next to you, which is a type of co-sleeping, will not increase their risk of SIDS, and is not what is being researched in these studies.
The second issue is that bed-sharing itself does not cause SIDS. There are factors typically associated with bed-sharing that have been shown to increase risk of SIDS, but simply sleeping in close proximity to your baby will not cause SIDS. These articles failed to explain how bed-sharing is linked to SIDS and used the general term co-sleeping, which has caused mothers to be fearful of situations that are completely safe.
Infant deaths of an unknown cause are categorized as SIDS, but some of these deaths may actually be caused by accidental suffocation. In these situations, it can be difficult to determine the accurate cause of death, especially if the death is not investigated thoroughly, leading to inaccurate statistics about infant deaths and a misrepresentation of the safety of bed-sharing.
What, then, are some of the factors related to bed-sharing that may be risky for your baby?
I think the greatest concern from bed-sharing comes from the bed surface and environment that is typical for most parents—a relatively soft surface with pillows and blankets. Since these sleeping arrangements are such a standard, parents may not consider it to be a danger for their baby.
The safest way for an infant to sleep, however, is on their back on a hard surface with no pillows or blankets, which is quite different from our typical bed.
Soft surfaces make it easier for the baby to roll over, which has been shown to increase risk of SIDS.
Any blankets, sheets, or pillows on the bed can cause accidental suffocation by covering the baby’s face, even a light sheet can be dangerous.
One of the other risks associated with bed-sharing is that a parent could roll over onto their baby. Now, I don’t believe that a parent could completely roll on top of their baby and not realize, but the parent and infant could roll into each other just enough, or the mother’s hair could cover the infant’s face, causing blockage of the airway. If a parent is drinking alcohol or taking medicine prior to bed-sharing, there is an increased risk of infant death.
So, a typical parent’s bed is likely not as safe as an infant’s bed needs to be.
Luckily, there is a middle ground that seems to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks: a co-sleeper.
A co-sleeper is a bassinet that attaches to the bed.
I find this to be the most ideal situation because babies get their most ideal sleeping surface (hard, no pillows or blankets) and parents don’t have to keep one eye open all night to make sure he’s on his back with nothing covering his face. I’m sure all of you parents still sleep with one eye open anyways, but having separate sleeping surfaces should take at least one item off your long list of worries.
Your baby will still be close enough for easy breastfeeding, and you won’t have to get out of bed to get your baby from the crib. Babies will also be able to feel safe and comforted in their environment, especially when you are able to react immediately to their needs. Parenting is full of challenges, and ultimately I believe we can all agree that everyone wants to do what is best for their child.
There is no way to eliminate an infant’s risk of SIDS, however, there are ways to reduce the risks and avoid accidental suffocation. A co-sleeper does just that, while still providing the benefits of bed-sharing.