Co-sleeping: Is it Safe, Is It Convenient, and Will They Ever Leave My Bed?

If you have a baby, know a baby, or have just heard of babies, you’re probably aware that sleep does not necessarily come easily to them. Most people go into parenting knowing that they won’t be getting as much sleep as they’d like, but really, they have no idea what they’re in for.

(Full disclosure: When I had my first baby, I expected that my sleep would get back to normal after around six weeks. Which means that my estimate was off by around six years and 49 weeks…. and counting.)

There are lots of debates surrounding babies’ sleep—how often should they eat during the night? Will formula make them sleep for longer stretches? Should they be allowed to cry?—but one of the most contentious is the issue of where they should sleep.

Most experts agree that for the first six months, babies should sleep in the same room as their parents since this has been shown to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). There is far less agreement, however, on whether babies should share their parents’ bed or sleep separately. This debate comes down to two broad issues: safety and convenience. And everyone, I mean everyone, has an opinion. Luckily, where safety is concerned, we don’t have to rely on opinions, because there’s lots of research out there that can inform our choices.

(Note: This abundance of research will unfortunately not deter anyone from sharing their opinion with you. Repeatedly.)

Co-sleeping and Safety

You might have heard that co-sleeping is unsafe and that it increases the risk of SIDS and/or suffocation. You might have even heard tragic stories that seem to bear this out. And it’s true that, under certain conditions, it is unsafe to share a bed with a baby, and tragedies do occasionally occur. In spite of popular belief, though, co-sleeping is only unsafe in certain circumstances.

The Bradford Study

Much light was shed on the safety of co-sleeping by a study conducted in Bradford, England, known as “Born in Bradford.” The South Asian population in Bradford had a very low incidence of SIDS, only 0.2 in 1000 births, so some researchers decided to look into why this was. They found that there were four factors that separated the practices of South Asian families from Caucasian families in this community: the South Asian mothers didn’t drink or smoke; the babies did not sleep in a room by themselves; the mothers breastfed their babies; the mothers were much more likely to co-sleep, and did so without their husbands in the bed.

What does this study tell us? Well, first, it does not necessarily indicate that co-sleeping on its own reduces the risk of SIDS; after all, there are several factors at play, and any of these might contribute to the lower incidence of SIDS. The study does suggest, however, that co-sleeping is safe under specific conditions. These conditions include the mother abstaining from drugs and alcohol, breastfeeding her baby, and sleeping separately from her partner.

Shared Sleep Patterns

Another study looked at pairs of mothers and babies sleeping next to each other, in order to determine whether they were aware of one another’s presence when sleeping. Long story short, they were. The researchers found that co-sleeping mothers and babies synchronized their sleep stages, and seemed to be tuned into one another’s breathing and movements.

What does this mean? Well, the researchers are careful not to draw any conclusions from their preliminary study, but they suggest that co-sleeping might allow mothers to react immediately—even when sleeping—if their babies’ breathing were to slow down or stop. At the very least, this study suggests that further work should be done to determine whether co-sleeping could actually prove to be beneficial where SIDS is concerned.

Safety Checklist

If you do decide to co-sleep, the following steps will set you up for success:

  • Avoid drinking and drugs

While the occasional alcoholic beverage is generally fine for new moms, it is not a good idea for moms who are co-sleeping to indulge. Having extra chemicals in your system makes you sleep a bit more soundly, which could result in you being less tuned into the baby who is sleeping next to you.

  • No heavy covers near the baby

It’s very easy for a small baby to get lost in heavy covers. If you’re cold, wear heavier pajamas.

  • Only the mother should be next to the baby

As the ‘shared sleep patterns’ study suggests, mothers and babies tend to tune into one another at night. At present, there is no evidence that fathers and babies do the same. Follow the takeaways from the Bradford study and ask Dad to sleep elsewhere.

  • Plan in advance

It is not a good idea for your first attempt at co-sleeping to be when you’re exhausted at 3 am and it occurs to you that you could just fall asleep right where you are with the baby. You have not gotten the bed ready and you are in no position to make sure that everything is safe and prepared. Wait until the next day to plan for the following night.

  • Convenience

This one is really your call. You know where your baby sleeps best and you know what you’re comfortable with. That said, there are a few pros and cons that seem to be more or less universal.

Co-Sleeping Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Breastfeeding

If you’re breastfeeding, co-sleeping might just be the best thing that’s ever happened to you, at least as far as sleep is concerned. Breastfed babies tend to wake frequently in the night since breast milk is designed for babies’ bodies and goes through them very quickly. This means that these babies get hungry more frequently than formula-fed babies. If you’re co-sleeping, you can deal with these night feeds without wearing a path in your carpet between your bed and the crib. You can also spend these feeds in a half-awake stupor. You can trust me on this because I’ve spent more or less the last seven years like that.

  • Closeness

As everyone over the age of 60 likes to remind us, children are only this age once, and we should make the best of the good parts. Cuddling is a very good part.

Cons

  • They might not want to leave!

If I’m being honest, there is a very good chance that your baby will end up staying in your bed for quite awhile. Having had four kids who all spent some time co-sleeping, I can tell you that they get awfully comfortable in their parents’ bed. Be prepared to invest in a very cool “grown up bed” for them to tempt them into their own room. And then be prepared for that not to work.

  • Limbs everywhere

If you’re reading this before having children, you might not understand how such a small person can take up 75 per cent of a king size bed. It’s one of science’s great mysteries, but I can assure you it’s true. So, while you may get more sleep than someone else who’s running room to room all night, a lot of this sleep will be with an elbow in your neck.

  • The endless commentary from “experts”

This gets annoying. But I assume that if I weren’t co-sleeping, they would probably find something else to complete the sentence, “Are you still _____ with [baby’s name]?”

In the End…

This decision comes down to you, your baby, and your family. As you’re trying to decide what’s best for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • In which situation will you feel the most relaxed?
  • In which place does your baby actually sleep?
  • Which situation puts less stress on your marriage?

Like everything else in parenting, the answers will be different for different families. Also, like everything else in parenting, your answers are the ones that count.

 

What have you found works for you? Let us know.

 

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Kelly Sue.

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