The facts about co-sleeping with your baby

It was 6 am.

I was fast asleep in bed with my husband and in between us was baby Aaron (my first).

“Oh, there he is!”

Suddenly, dramatically, shockingly, the bedcovers went flying off us.

“What the….?”

All three of us woke up with a start.

There, at the end of my bed stood my parents.

As my heart pounded in my chest from the rude awakening, my parents stood gazing lovingly at their first grandchild. They were oblivious to the two adults in the bed and judging by the looks on their faces, how we might have felt about having our blankets yanked off.

“He wasn’t in his cradle. We got worried.”

“Really?? Did you think at 5 months old that he jumped out of his cradle and took the car into town?!?”

No. I didn’t really say that. But it did cross my mind for a split second…

I knew better. My parents were among the most anxious people on the planet and I knew they meant well even though I really don’t know where they thought he could possibly have gone.

“No, he’s fine. He’s just tucked in with us. It makes it easier to feed him.”

It was my parents’ first visit with their first grandchild. During their visit, I was putting Aaron to sleep in another room in his cradle.

And they, just like everybody else in those days who kept their baby sleeping in another room, assumed that that was where he stayed.

But after I had gone to bed and he’d woken a few times, I brought him in our bed for the rest of the night.

Back then, sleeping with your baby was never spoken about outrightly. I remember being told by friends, and health professionals,  “Whatever you do, don’t let him sleep in your room. You won’t get any sleep and it forms bad habits.”

They weren’t even mentioning bed sharing or co-sleeping – they were saying, not even in the same room!

In fact, the words “bed sharing” and “co-sleeping” weren’t even in the popular vocabulary.

And there I was with my baby in our bed.

I was definitely a closet co-sleeper. I hardly told anyone.

It took me awhile to get the courage to bring him into our bed.

And if it hadn’t been for the moms in the La Leche League breastfeeding group I attended, I might never have had the courage.

At each meeting, I would complain about my intense exhaustion…

getting up throughout the night,
going into his room,
getting him out of his cradle,
sitting in the rocker or on the living room couch,
nursing him back to sleep,
getting up,
putting him back in his cradle,
going back to bed,
trying to fall back to sleep…

Night after night after night.

At each meeting, a few of the moms in the group would say, “Just tuck him into bed with you. You’ll be a lot less tired.That’s what mothers have done since beginning of time.”

I thought this was shocking. I resisted. It was too weird. I never heard anyone else suggest that.

This was the mid-80s and it wasn’t in any of the baby books or the many many child development books I had read.

But I was desperate. So I gave it a try.

I’d start him in his cradle. Then, the first time he woke up after I had gone to bed, I brought him into bed with us where he stayed for the night.

Wow! What a difference that made.

My extreme exhaustion disappeared. I was still tired, but tired and exhausted are two different things! And though Aaron was still waking lots, I felt much better and more rested.

Fast forward a few decades…

My how things have changed.

The terms co-sleeping, bed-sharing, family bed, side-car sleeping, room sharing are familiar to almost all parents.

We also know more about infant sleep.

We know that every mammal on the planet sleeps with its young and that in virtually every human culture except North American and some other industrialized cultures, mothers always sleep with their babies. There must be a reason (great collection of articles)

Parents have many options for sleep now and it can be confusing. There is so much conflicting information.

But it is known in medical circles that more parents than ever are bringing their babies into bed with them, many of whom don’t admit it.

I personally also know because many parents say to me, hesitantly,  “I don’t let anyone know this, but I bring my baby into our bed every night.”

Why all the secrecy?

For one, the American and Canadian Pediatric Associations officially recommend against co-sleeping. Their recommendations are based on several research studies that implicated co-sleeping in infant deaths. The news was shocking and the media jumped on it. So did the Juvenile Products Manufacturers (the crib makers) who funded massive campaigns to tell parents that their babies should sleep in a crib.

But in the last few years those research studies have been discredited by more serious and careful researchers.

Turns out that the original studies didn’t identify many very significant variables.

They ignored the real factors that contributed to the infant deaths.

When those factors were accounted for, co-sleeping itself was NOT the cause of the infant deaths. But unsafe co-sleeping and parental characteristics and behaviour were. Even one of the most prominent SIDS researchers agrees with this.

What makes for unsafe co-sleeping?

  • babies (less than a year) sleeping with older siblings
  • babies and parents sleeping on a couch or chair together
  • babies sleeping in waterbeds or beds with very soft mattresses
  • babies sleeping with a parent who had been drinking alcohol
  • babies sleeping with parents who were high from various drugs
  • babies sleeping with a parent taking sedatives, sleeping pills, or any medication that made the parent drowsy
  • babies sleeping with a parent who smokes (either parent smoking during pregnancy, and/or after the baby is born is a risk factor for SIDS, wherever the baby sleeps)
  • babies sleeping with an obese parent (the parent cannot feel where the baby is, and may sleep more deeply)
  • babies who were formula fed (formula feeding itself is a risk factor for SIDS.) Most people recommend that formula fed babies sleep in a sidecar, rather than in the parents bed. Formula feeding mothers do not develop the sleep cycle synchronicity with their babies, tend to position their babies differently in the bed and the babies have slower arousal levels. Formula feeding moms may want to read this article which says that the research is not yet definitive)
  • babies sleeping in beds with big puffy blankets (suffocation and overheating are possible)
  • babies sleeping with their parents and swaddled. (swaddling is too hot and babies can’t move to shift themselves or use their hands or feet to alert parents to possible distress.)
  • babies who were premature or who have serious health problems
  • babies put to sleep on their tummies

ALL of the above are risk factors for co-sleeping. Eliminate those risks and you have safe co-sleeping.

Interestingly, everyone now recommends that babies sleep in the same room as the parents from birth to six months or a year.

The highest rate of SIDS is in formula fed babies sleeping alone in a crib in a separate room from the parents. If you like scholarly writing on this subject checkthis out.

If you want to have your baby close but not in your bed, there are side-cars that attach to your bed. You can put a bassinet or cradle right next to your bed. You can also turn your crib into a sidecar.

But if you do want your baby in your bed, it is essential that you become familiar with safe co-sleeping guidelines.

What about me feeling more rested when I started co-sleeping?

The most recent really comprehensive research on maternal sleep indicates that, even though they wake more often, the mothers who get the most actual hours of sleep time are those who exclusively breastfeed and who co-sleep with their babies.

Co-sleeping and/or bed sharing are not for everyone. It is a personal decision and you have to decide what works for your family. Some babies sleep better in their own space. Some parents just can’t sleep if the baby is in their bed. Some parents just feel it is too risky.

Some babies (and some moms) can’t sleep unless they are physically cuddled and connected together.

Sidecars and other sleep surfaces that are right within arms reach, are still considered co-sleeping.

Infant Sleep is one of the most “hot button” controversial topics and people can become very intense, judgemental and intolerant around other people’s decisions.

As I always say about parenting choices, listen to your baby, and listen to your heart. Always be safe. It’s hard to go wrong.

And if you’re really unsure and need to talk to somebody who’s “been there and done that”, please reach out to me. I’m happy to help.


image credit: sima dimitric

Judy Banfield

I’m Judy Banfield and I’m here to help you feel better about yourself as a person and more confident and secure as a parent.

In my 30+ years of working with babies, young children and parents, I have learned that valuing and treasuring and deeply knowing yourself gives you the foundation to more confidently and joyfully, love, treasure, teach and guide your children.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Great article. People have gotten all mean in the last few years about infant sleep. (Like my mother was). They use a different language and talk about self soothing and sweet sleep but really it is about neglecting the emotional needs of the baby. How much depression and despair in our world is caused by the littlest ones being abandoned in the dark?

  2. Thanks Catherine, I agree with you completely. I see very loving parents convinced that they need to turn off their natural responsiveness and adopt distancing parenting so that they can conform to the new language – self soothing, “Sleep associations” like breastfeeding, rocking, singing etc (what used to be considered normal parenting). It’s very sad to see!

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