Co-sleeping, the act of sharing a bed with your baby, makes those middle of the night feedings much easier to deal with, but the controversial practice can be hazardous for infants.
Several studies show that sharing a bed with a baby can be dangerous: A 2014 study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at more than 8,000 infant deaths in the U.S. and found that young babies who died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) were more likely to have been sharing a bed with a parent or sleeping in an adult bed or on an adult.
A 2013 study found that infants younger than three months old who slept in bed with a parent were five times more likely to die of SIDS compared to babies who slept separately from the parents but were still in the same room. For co-sleeping babies ages three months to one year, the risk of SIDS was three times as high as infants who didn’t co-sleep. According to ScienceDaily: “The researchers estimate that 81% of cot deaths among babies under 3 months with no other risk factors could be prevented if they did not sleep in the same bed as their parents.”
However, research shows that co-sleeping can help moms stick with breastfeeding for longer periods of time. A 2013 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that the longer mothers shared a bed with their babies, the longer they breastfed.
Should you co-sleep with your baby? (Photo: Getty Images)
What the Experts Say
According to some experts, co-sleeping can be done safely by following certain parameters, such as sleeping in a queen or king-size bed so there is plenty of room for everyone, placing the baby on his back and between the mother and the guardrail (rather than between the parents), and making sure there are no crevices that the baby can sink into, notes pediatrician and co-sleeping advocate William Sears on his site, Ask Dr Sears.
Others point out that co-sleeping makes it easier for moms to breastfeed during the night and reduces stress in both mom and baby.“Bed-sharing works so well because breastfeeding mothers and babies are hardwired to be together during vulnerable sleep periods,” lactation consultant Diana West writes in The Huffington Post. “Babies have higher stress levels and less stable heart rates and temperatures when they’re separated from their mothers. Mothers feel stress when they’re separated from their babies. When they bed-share, the baby’s happier and doesn’t have to cry to get the mother’s attention, and she doesn’t have to get out of bed — she just latches the baby on and maybe even falls back to sleep.”
But other experts strongly disagree that co-sleeping is ever safe. “Even if you do everything right, bed-sharing increases a baby’s risk [of SIDS],” Rachel Moon, a pediatrician at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C., and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics task force on SIDS, tells LiveScience.
In addition, some argue that sharing a bed means that babies miss out on learning an important skill — self-soothing — which will come in handy when infants eventually transition to a crib: “A key life coping skill is developed when babies are allowed to learn self-soothing in order to fall asleep,” Fran Walfish, a child and family psychologist in Beverly Hills and author of The Self-Aware Parent, tells Time.
One solution to simultaneously keep your baby close and safe may be room sharing: “Keeping the mother and infant together for most of the time, including night time represents the most biologically appropriate arrangement simply because breastfeeding is not possible or easily managed without it,“ David DaCosta, MD, a neonatologist at Henry Ford Hospital, tells Time. "In my mind, room-sharing with safe-sleep practices would produce similar benefits in motivated parents.”
What the Parents Say
"I loved the closeness I had with co-sleeping, and I believe that because my baby could feel me and hear my heart beat, like in the womb, it helped my baby feel safe. I never had any challenges. My husband slept in another room, which is where we were intimate. Breastfeeding was also so much easier because I didn’t really have to get out of bed or totally wake up. I often miss those days of feeling totally at peace with my babies.” —Kachina K.
“The reason I haven’t been co-sleeping with my baby has to do with his safety. I am worried that either myself or my husband would roll on top of him. Additionally, I am worried that either of us would pull the blanket over the baby. So I have found it better for our son to sleep in his own bed.” —Tuulia Okser.
“I co-slept with my babies. With my first, she had been in the NICU for six weeks, and we were absolutely craving skin-to-skin contact. We eventually got an Arm’s Reach co-sleeper [a crib that attaches to the side of the bed], which gives you the best of both worlds. With my second baby, co-sleeping was less necessary, but I really liked to hear her breathing and be able to put my hand on her. My kids are now 4 and 6 and they co-sleep together in a full-size bed they share.” —Amy Keyishian.
The Bottom Line
If you’d like to co-sleep with your baby, talk to your pediatrician about the risks and the specific safety parameters to follow. You shouldn’t co-sleep if you smoke (which increases a baby’s SIDS risk) or have been drinking alcohol or taking drugs that make you drowsy since they hamper your ability to respond to your baby during the night. A good compromise would be using a co-sleeper, which attaches to your bed, allowing your baby to be within arm’s reach for nighttime feedings but still able to safely sleep in his own crib.