The 5 Things You Must Know When Considering Co-Sleeping

Everything to know about this controversial practice.

everything to know about co-sleeping

In our culture, there are very few topics that are more controversial than sleeping in the same bed as your baby. This is most often referred to as “co-sleeping,” “bedsharing,” or “the family bed.”

Many moms choose to co-sleep out of convenience, especially if breastfeeding. On the other hand, it is risky and has been associated with SIDS.

I had read about co-sleeping before having my daughter and thought that it was best to avoid it.

When Maxine came home from the hospital, I had her sweet little bassinet ready by my side of the bed and was convinced she would easily sleep through the night right away. It was a nice theory, but it didn’t seem like she slept well in it.

When she did sleep, I couldn’t: I would wake up at least once an hour to check on her and make sure she was still breathing.

After a few weeks of this, I was exhausted (as I’m sure you are right now) and decided maybe it would work out better if Max slept beside me.

It was like night and day: she slept better, and I slept better knowing that she was right beside me and I could feel her breathing. There was also a bonus: my husband is a truck driver and is away from home quite a bit, so cuddling with our sweet baby helped with those lonely nights when he was away (I’m sure all you military wives can agree).

While opinions are conflicting, many agree that co-sleeping is safe if done responsibly. Whether or not you decide to co-sleep, you must take some steps to ensure your baby’s safety while he sleeps.

Co-sleeping is common.

While bedsharing is frowned upon by many here in America, many cultures currently co-sleep with their babies.

According to BabyCenter,

It turns out that many families sleep together all over the world. While it’s hard to tell exactly how many parents in the United States co-sleep, there’s no doubt it’s a growing trend: According to one national survey, about 13 percent of parents practice sleep-sharing, a number that’s more than doubled in recent years. Even parents who don’t subscribe to the idea of a family bed may allow a child to co-sleep on occasion when they feel it’s necessary.

In an article on SciJourner.org, Dr. Danny Lewin (director of the Sleep Disorders Medicine Program in the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health) states:

Co-sleeping is a common practice in about 75% of the world….that closeness of proximity at night is probably one of the most powerful cues to help us…let down and let go. So a child who does not want to sleep alone at night is doing something very, very natural.

Tracy Hogg writes (with co-author Melinda Blau) in Secrets of the Baby Whisperer (which I highly recommend, by the way):

“[Parents] who share the family bed philosophy often cite parenting practices in cultures such as Bali, where infants are not allowed to touch the ground until they’re three months old.”

Whether you are part of the group in favor of co-sleeping or decide that it’s not right for you, it is imperative to know the risks as well as the benefits so you can make an educated decision (no matter how common or uncommon it is).

There are benefits for mother and baby.

In 1992, Dr. William Sears, a well-known advocate of “sleep sharing”, did a study on the benefits for both mother and baby: he set up equipment to monitor his eight week old daughter’s breathing in two different sleep environments: sharing a bed with her mother (his wife, Martha) the first night, and sleeping alone.

Martha nursed Lauren to sleep the same way both nights. He and a technician observed and recorded the information, which was analyzed by a computer and interpreted by a pediatric pulmonologist (who was purposefully kept in the dark as to what data came from which sleeping situation).

Sears states, “Our study revealed that Lauren breathed better when sleeping next to Martha than when sleeping alone. Her breathing and her heart rate were more regular during shared sleep, and there were fewer “dips,” low points in respiration and blood oxygen from stop-breathing episodes. On the night Lauren slept with Martha, there were no dips in her blood oxygen. On the night Lauren slept alone, there were 132 dips.”

Sears also shares the preliminary findings of studies done (on mothers and babies ranging from two to five months) in sleep laboratories that were set up to mimic the home bedroom as much as possible:

  • “Sleep-sharing pairs showed more synchronous arousals than when sleeping separately. When one member of the pair stirred, coughed, or changed sleeping stages, the other member also changed, often without awakening.
  • Each member of the pair tended to often, but not always, be in the same stage of sleep for longer periods if they slept together.
  • Sleep-sharing babies spent less time in each cycle of deep sleep. Lest mothers worry they will get less deep sleep; preliminary studies showed that sleep-sharing mothers didn’t get less total deep sleep.
  • Sleep-sharing infants aroused more often and spent more time breastfeeding than solitary sleepers, yet the sleep-sharing mothers did not report awakening more frequently.
  • Sleep-sharing infants tended to sleep more often on their backs or sides and less often on their tummies, a factor that could itself lower the SIDS risk.
  • A lot of mutual touch and interaction occurs between the sleep-sharers. What one does affects the nighttime behavior of the other.”

Many mothers agree that co-sleeping makes breastfeeding at night easier, and sleep better while bonding with their babies. You can read more about the benefits of bedsharing here.

There are risks you should know about.

There are many who disagree that the benefits outweigh the risks when a mother decides to co-sleep.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as well as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission strongly recommend against sharing a bed with your baby due to the increased risk of SIDS, death from suffocation, strangulation, or another unexplained cause. The AAP says, “Room-sharing without bedsharing is recommended – there is evidence that this arrangement decreases the risk of SIDS by as much as 50%.” (Courtesy of Kellymom.com)

Many experts disagree, arguing that deaths that occur while co-sleeping are most often associated with one or more risk factors that result in suffocation or SIDS.

James J. McKenna, Ph.D., a world-recognized infant sleep authority, notes:

In sum, overwhelmingly, bedsharing deaths are associated with at least one independent risk factor associated with an infant dying. These include an infant being placed prone (on its stomach) and placed in an adult bed without supervision, or no breastfeeding, or other children in the bed, or infants being placed in an adult bed on top of a pillow, or who bedshare even though their mothers smoked during the pregnancy therein compromising potentially the infants ability to arouse (to terminate too little oxygen, or to terminate an apnea).

Drug use and alcohol have historically been associated with poor outcomes for bedsharing babies so if drugs and/or alcohol are present, please don’t bedshare. You can see what else Dr. McKenna has to say about co-sleeping in this video.”

Dr. Sears agrees, “I believe that in most cases SIDS is a sleep disorder, primarily a disorder of arousal and breathing control during sleep. All the elements of natural mothering, especially breastfeeding and sharing sleep, benefit the infant’s breathing control and increase the mutual awareness between mother and infant so that their arousability is increased and the risk of SIDS decreased.

A lot of mothers (including me) still choose to co-sleep despite the warnings of many. Knowing that there is a risk of SIDS or suffocation obviously made me anxious, but I think that as a parent, you have to choose what’s best for your baby at the time no matter what warnings you hear.

You need to be responsible.

If you decide to co-sleep with your baby, make sure the environment is as safe as possible:

  • Don’t sleep with your baby if you or your partner smokes.
  • Always lay baby on a firm, flat surface. So no soft mattresses, couches, pillows, egg-crate mattress toppers, or any other surface that can interfere with your baby’s breathing.
  • If you or your partner are extremely overweight, it is much safer to keep baby in a crib or bassinet next to your bed.
  • Don’t sleep with baby if you already share a bed with an older child or your pet.
  • Check each night for gaps between your mattress and the wall (if your bed is against a wall), and remove any headboard and footboard that have cutouts or slats more than 2 3/8 inches apart.
  • Make sure your bedroom is childproof, and keep your bed away from anything that could be unsafe for a baby (glass tables or furniture with sharp edges, lamps that can be pulled over, window blind cords, etc.)
  • Sleep with only a light blanket (I always preferred to sleep with the afghan-type blankets that have holes you can breathe through). Keep pillows away from your baby to prevent suffocation as well as overheating.
  • Dress your baby in lighter clothing than if she was sleeping alone. Your body warmth is sufficient enough; it is very easy for a baby to become overheated when sleeping with you.
  • If you or your partner are heavy sleepers, you should avoid co-sleeping. One of the reasons I was comfortable enough to sleep beside Max is because I stay completely still when I sleep; I can fall asleep with a full drink in my hand and wake up hours later to discover I hadn’t spilled a drop.
  • If you have long hair, twist it into a bun and avoid wearing any clothing that has long ribbons or straps on it – any of these can become wrapped around your baby’s neck.
  • If possible, place your mattress on the floor, or invest in some mesh bed rails to be prepared for when your baby surprises you by rolling over for the first time..right off of the bed in the middle of the night (like mine did).
  • Always make sure you put baby to sleep on his back; he may roll onto his side towards you when he sleeps, but the main thing to remember is to never let a baby sleep on their tummy.
  • Never, ever sleep with your baby on a couch – you may think it’s safe because the back keeps baby from falling off, but it is way too easy for them to suffocate this way. A study done in 2014 revealed that 12 percent of the 8,000 infant sleeping deaths in the U.S. were sofa-related.

What if my baby wants to sleep on my chest?

One big no-no that I found myself guilty of doing is sleeping with your baby on your chest. This is hazardous in more ways than one:

  1. Your baby may roll off of you, and either fall off the bed or get caught in a situation where it is impossible to breathe.
  2. Your baby can become overheated, which is one of the possible contributing factors to SIDS. I know this can easily happen from experience; poor Max would always wake up a sweaty mess after sleeping on my chest.
  3. If baby is sleeping on your chest, they are sleeping on their stomach, which is not safe.

If your baby does fall asleep on your chest, it is best to put them down on their back to sleep right away. If you happen to fall asleep too, your baby could roll off of you and get trapped, and you won’t be as aware of any other risk factors surrounding you. Most of the time this will happen on the couch, so if you find yourself getting sleepy, make sure to move your baby to a safer spot right away.

Another reason you shouldn’t sleep with your baby on your chest: if you start doing this early on, your child may start to see you as a “prop” and refuse to fall asleep anywhere but on you or your partner’s chest. I know it’s so sweet when they’re sleeping like that, but trust me, you don’t want your baby to always need you to fall asleep.

Hogg writes, “Remember that everything you do teaches your baby. Therefore, when you put him to bed by cuddling him on your chest or rocking him for forty minutes, in effect, you’re instructing him. You’re saying, ‘This is how you get to sleep.’ Once you go down that road, you’d better be prepared to cuddle and rock him for a long, long time.

You can read more about the co-sleeping and the risks here and here.

You need to be flexible.

Another definition for “co-sleeping” is sharing a room with your baby, in the form of a bedside sleeper or a crib in your room. This is what the AAP recommends as the safest option, and it may be helpful to get your baby used to sleeping in their own space early on.

In this article, the Nemours Foundation advises:

If you let your infant share your bed, get him into his crib by six months of age before he has time to make co-sleeping a habit and developmental issues such as separation anxiety become problematic.

In hindsight, I wish I had let Max spend more nights in her bassinet and take naps in her crib, so she could get used to sleeping in a number of different places. It would’ve made the transition to her crib so much easier.

Ann Douglas writes in The Mother Of All Baby Books:

Even if you usually co-sleep with your child, you might want to consider an alternate sleeping arrangement on nights when you might exhibit some of those risk factors yourself – for example, if you have a couple of glasses of wine at a party or you take a cold capsule to help you ward off a miserable cold. Co-sleeping doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You can do it on a part-time basis.

Let me remind you that I am in no way a medical professional and no advice of mine will substitute for your doctors. If you do decide to co-sleep, be honest with your doctor and listen carefully to what they have to say. Make sure you are educated in every way on the risks to avoid the unthinkable.

It is also crucial to communicate with your partner and be respectful of their opinion on the subject. One of the most common problems couples report when sharing a bed with their child is decreased intimacy. While you can get creative on the time and place you make love, it is best to find a better option unless everyone is 100 percent on board with the idea.

If you are a co-sleeping parent, remember to cherish these precious moments; you’ll miss them when your child is older. We recently drove 2100 miles during our move from Texas to Oregon.

Maxine has been sleeping in her crib in her room for over a year now, and I thought she would be okay sleeping with me in the bed at the hotels we were staying at along the way.

It turns out I was wrong: Max decided during the first couple nights that it was an “all you can eat buffet” and nursed all night, which I used to be able to sleep through, but not anymore.

The first good night of sleep we both got was when the wonderful front desk lady at the La Quinta Inn provided us with a crib for Max (thanks again, Debbie!). There was a time when she used to sleep so much better next to me, but things change so fast.

I’m proud of her that she is independent enough to want to sleep in her own space, but I can’t help but feel a little sad that she is growing up so fast.

What are your thoughts on co-sleeping? Please feel free to share in the comments!

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