I’ll never forget the look on my pediatrician’s face when I announced—cheerily—that my eldest daughter was sleeping in my bed, nestled every night into the warmth and comfort of my arms.
“But, she shouldn’t be in your bed!” He looked positively aghast.
“What? Why not?”
“Co-sleeping isn’t safe!”
I stared at him. What could be safer than holding my daughter close in my arms, feeling her gentle breath on me, sharing one space as we had for nine months preceding her birth?
Our family pediatrician has been a trusted resource for years (two generations, in fact), and I have never known him to take a holier-than-thou attitude. But he talked about co-sleeping being unsafe as if it were indisputable fact, and I were reckless for even contemplating it.
Today, as a mother of four and with a full decade between this incident and today, I can say that I am comfortable disagreeing with my pediatrician on certain matters. We have an understanding I will make some choices for my family with which he may not agree, but that I will at all times do everything to ensure my children’s safety and wellbeing. With each subsequent child, when the question of sleeping arrangements has come up at one of our early visits, I have changed the subject and he has not pried.
But there remains the pervasive myth that co-sleeping is not safe, and the confusion between co-sleeping and bed-sharing.
In fact, it is the safest sleeping arrangement a baby could have. Babies who sleep within arms’ reach of their parents form stronger bonds with their family unit, are more likely to sleep through the night, and are less likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Why all the fuss, then? Over the years, there have been many incidents of unsafe bed-sharing—incidents that have given co-sleeping a bad name and have caused many parents (and pediatricians) to doubt its safety.
To be sure, precautions are warranted. But it is easy to establish a safe and healthy co-sleeping arrangement with your new baby—a choice that many families have found to be the answer to peaceful sleep with their brand new babies.
Co-sleeping and bed-sharing are personal choices, and what matters most is what works best for your family.
So, what is co-sleeping? What is bed-sharing? And how do we keep it safe for the most precious little people in our lives?
What is Co-Sleeping?
Co-sleeping takes many forms, but at its core is any arrangement in which the baby shares a sleeping space with its family members. There are varying degrees of proximity, according to the needs of the family. Possibly the most common form of co-sleeping involves having the baby in a stand-alone bassinet or crib alongside the parents’ bed, within arms’ reach of the parents. Co-sleeping may also involve the baby sleeping in a bassinet that is attached to the parents’ bed, or in a baby crate or Moses basket alongside or even in the bed. Or co-sleeping may take the form of bed-sharing, in which the baby sleeps in mom’s or dad’s arms directly in the parents’ bed. With proper precautions (described below), any of these arrangements may be considered safe.
What is Bed-Sharing?
Co-sleeping and bed-sharing are quite similar, the only difference being that not all co-sleeping is bed-sharing, but all bed-sharing is a form of co-sleeping. For my family, bed-sharing has been the easiest and most natural solution for caring for my newborns. Babies benefit from nestling into warm and familiar space, and adapting to parents’ natural biorhythms. They learn healthy sleep patterns and begin sleeping through the night early. And, secure in the constant contact they receive throughout the night, they are eager and ready to explore their brand new world during the day.
In my case, each of my first three children began sleeping through the night by four months old, and then transitioned to a bassinet in my room and later to a crib in their own bedrooms. My son, now five months old, still shares our bed. I allow my children to dictate when they are ready to separate from me for sleeping—when they become all knees and elbows and simply won’t settle in my arms, I know it’s time! But this is my model; your family must find what works for you.
Pros of Co-Sleeping
Parents around the world have already discovered the many benefits of co-sleeping, including increased bonding, better established routine, more regular sleep patterns, increased breathing and temperature regulation in the baby, and close access to your baby at all times. Especially for working parents, co-sleeping drastically multiplies the hours of physical closeness to a new baby. And perhaps most notable, co-sleeping allows increased ease of breastfeeding—and increased breastfeeding has been shown to drastically reduce the risk of SIDS.
Make Co-Sleeping / Bed-Sharing Work for You
Before you decide on any one method or style of bed-sharing, consider the needs of your family. Does your family’s schedule allow co-sleeping? Do space constraints necessitate bed-sharing? Would sibling co-sleeping be appropriate (after age one)? Do environmental factors in your home make bed-sharing risky?
Often families find themselves adopting co-sleeping not by deliberate choice, but through a process of trial and error that leads them to discover on their own how and to what extent co-sleeping works for them.
Be prepared that your relationship with your partner will be different for a while as you adjust to the co-sleeping arrangements. While the shared space may seem to hinder any (ahem) playfulness, try to bond over the frustration instead of allowing it to become a wedge between you. Be mindful of maintaining a healthy love relationship with you partner. There are plenty of ways to maintain intimacy while co-sleeping—even if it takes an extra bit of creativity on your part.
How to Co-Sleep Safely
As with any parenting approach, successful co-sleeping requires important safety considerations.
- Pillows, blankets, and loose bedding should be kept to a minimum, and as far from your baby’s face as possible
- Babies should not be allowed to sleep on their stomachs or in any face-down position.
- Light clothing is best for a sleeping baby (regardless of sleeping arrangements!)
- Never cover a sleeping baby’s head.
- The bassinet or baby crate should have mesh or other breathable sides, to reduce the risk of suffocation.
- Co-sleeping is never recommended on a couch, recliner or waterbed, as the risks of suffocation or entrapment outweigh any benefits derived from co-sleeping.
Bed-sharing can also be safe, but requires special precautions in addition to those necessary for any co-sleeping arrangement:
- Do not bed-share if you or your partner have consumed any alcohol or sedative prescription medicine!
- Bed-sharing is not recommended for smokers, as the nicotine in parents’ skin and hair has been linked to an increased risk of SIDS.
- Be mindful of bed-sharing if you are large in proportion or know yourself to be a thrasher when sleeping. (Be honest with yourself!)
- The bed should not low to the ground and far from any other furniture or objects, to limit any harm to the baby in the event of rolling.