Co-Sleeping: The Pros and Cons of a Family Bed
Considering co-sleeping? We explore the pros and cons of sharing a bed with your kids.
Co-sleeping is a controversial issue: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says parents should never let their baby sleep in the bed with them—citing the risk of suffocation, SIDS and other sleep-related deaths. But in 2016, the AAP adjusted its guidelines to admit that co-sleeping does happen.
Sharing a bed with Baby seems to be especially prevalent on the road. According to a 2018 survey by BabyQuip, the leading baby gear rental service marketplace, 69% of parents said they have slept with their infant in the bed with them while traveling, and 39% of reported doing this frequently.
And a 1999 report from advised parents against keeping a baby in the adult bed, citing a study of 515 baby deaths in a seven-year period that were related to suffocation and entrapment. But many experts, including the renowned pediatrician Penelope Leach, refuted the wisdom of this advice and questioned the findings, noting that other risk factors weren't taken into account, such as whether the parents were drinking or taking drugs, or if the babies had been lying on their stomachs (which could indicate sudden infant death syndrome)
Logistics of Safe Baby Sleep
Some experts caution against putting too much emphasis on where you sleep rather than how.
"Location is not as important as relationships—how parents build attachment and love," says James McKenna, Ph.D., an anthropologist specializing in infancy and development and director of the mother/baby behavioral sleep laboratory at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. He also makes the point that gaining independence, which is part of the rationale for advocating crib sleeping, is something that a child will learn over time from her parents in many different ways.
The worst place for a newborn to doze is on a couch, armchair, and other soft, lumpy surface, which can create air pockets that make it difficult for her to breathe. This is especially dangerous during late-night feedings when both mom and baby are drowsy.
"If you think that there's even the slightest possibility that you may fall asleep [during a feeding], feed your baby on your bed, rather than a sofa or cushioned chair," said Lori Feldman-Winter, M.D., FAAP, member of the Task Force on SIDS and co-author of the AAP’s 2016 report on safe sleep guidelines for infants, in a statement.
"If you do fall asleep, as soon as you wake up be sure to move the baby to his or her own bed," she added.
The AAP recommends infants sleep on their backs in cribs outfitted with only a mattress covered with a tightly fitted sheet.
Benefits of Co-sleeping
The practical benefits of bed sharing are obvious. Not only are parents close by to respond to the baby if something goes wrong, but co-sleeping makes it easier for the breastfeeding mom to nurse throughout the night. Then, of course, there is the irresistible sweet intimacy of it.
"There is an instinctive need for the mother to be close to her baby," says Cynthia Epps, M.S., a certified lactation educator at the Pump Station in Santa Monica, Calif. Working women who don't get to see their babies all day may be especially attracted to co-sleeping to make up for the missed contact. "Keeping the baby close, with skin-to-skin contact, calms the baby," says Epps. "And it can cement the emotional bond between mother and child."
What about sharing a bed with older children, for whom co-sleeping poses no significant health risks? Samantha Gadsden, a birth doula in Caerphilly, Wales, shares a bed with her three children, even though the U.K.’s National Health Service shares the AAP’s stance against co-sleeping.
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When other risk factors are not present, official discouraging of co-sleeping is “coercion and scare-mongering, and treating women like they are not intelligent,” Gadsden told BBC News in November 2018.
“It's biologically normal to co-sleep,” she said, adding that parents should be informed of the pros, as wells as the cons, of bed-sharing, including the potential benefit of helping babies to regulate their breathing and temperature.
Even the AAP says sharing a bedroom (just not a sleeping surface) with your baby is beneficial: It recommends infants snooze in the same room as their parents for up to a year, optimally, but at least for their first 6 months of life.
Proponents of the family bed say…
- There’s a historical precedent for the practice. In many cultures all over the world, children have shared a bed with their parents for centuries.
- Nursing mothers get more sleep this way. Some breastfeeding moms find it easier to have their child nearby for nighttime feedings with minimal interruption of sleep for both parties.
- It helps children feel safe and secure. Some parents believe it's cruel to isolate a highly social child by putting him in his bed alone at night. Others simply feel that children derive a greater sense of security and well-being from sleeping near their mom and dad.
Drawbacks of Co-sleeping
Lynelle Schneeberg, Psy.D., director of the behavioral sleep program at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Parents.com that helping kids become confident, independent sleepers is more important than any positive effects of co-sleeping.
Sharing a family bed almost always, eventually, becomes problematic for a variety of reasons, says Dr. Schneeberg, including the following:
- Your kids may develop a sleep crutch... Always having a parent around at bedtime can become a strong "sleep onset association,” also called a sleep crutch or sleep prop—something your kid can’t drift off without. “Children need to learn how to fall asleep without a parent nearby,” says Dr. Schneeberg.
- ...or display anxious behaviors. In addition to developing the above sleep crutch, some children will come to expect interactions like back rubbing, patting, and being held to fall asleep. “They may be misdiagnosed as anxious because, since they have a hard time falling asleep without a parent nearby, they sometimes display anxious behaviors to convince a parent to stay nearby at bedtime,” Dr. Schneeberg explains.
- One bedtime doesn’t fit all. Children of different ages need different amounts of sleep, and their bedtimes vary accordingly. In families that share a bed, parents and older children end up turning in much earlier than they might wish, based on when the youngest children need to, explains Dr. Scheeberg. This situation easily becomes frustrating for everyone involved.
- Your sleep quality may suffer. Children—notoriously restless and active sleepers—can disrupt their parents' sleep by kicking or thrashing around, Dr. Schneedberg explains. “I've seen many families in which one parent—most often, the father—ends up sleeping in a different room entirely,” she says. “The parent with the children often becomes exhausted by either the restless sleep of the kids or the needs of each kid after an awakening.”
- Your relationship may suffer. For many couples with children, evenings are the only time they have to be alone together. When you’re sharing a bed with your kids, however, they’re literally separating you from your partner. The co-sleeping arrangement leaves little time or space for intimacy.
A Personal Choice
If you do choose to follow the co-sleeping route, make sure the togetherness you desire addresses your child's needs and not just your own. If you’re a single parent or your spouse is often away from home, for instance, you should not allow your child to sleep with you just to stave off your own loneliness.
Children who start co-sleeping at an early age aren’t likely to “grow out” of it once it has become as commonplace as sleeping with a pillow to them, Schneeberg warns. The long-term effects can be socially damaging too. “As the child grows up, he or she may not be able to participate in activities that other children the same age are enjoying like sleepover parties, summer camp, and overnight field trips,” she says.
If you’ve been sharing your bed because you feel it will be easier for your little one to sleep that way, it’s not too late to break the habit. You can certainly teach your child to fall asleep in her own bed within a few days.