Co-Sleeping: The Pros and Cons of a Family Bed
Co-sleeping is a controversial topic among parents and pediatricians. Here, we explore the drawbacks and benefits of co-sleeping, with advice to help you decide whether to share a bed with your children.
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, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and other sleep-related deaths.
Indeed, according to data compiled by NPR, a low-risk baby has a 1 in 16,400 chance of dying from SIDS in a parent’s bed. The likelihood decreases to 1 in 46,000 while sleeping in a crib in the parent’s room. And the practice can also negatively affect older children, who may become dependent on bed sharing as a sleep crutch.
Despite this evidence, some parents praise co-sleeping because it promotes bonding, helps children feel safe, and makes nursing easier. Read more about the characteristics of safe baby sleep, as well as the disadvantages and benefits of co-sleeping with your children.
The 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, Indiana. 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. There shouldn’t be any other items, such as toys or blankets, in the crib until Baby turns one.
The 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’s 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."
- RELATED: Guidelines for Safe Co-Sleeping
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.
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.
- RELATED: How to Get Baby to Sleep in the Crib
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.
The 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.
- Your kids may display anxious behaviors. In addition to developing the 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. As notoriously restless and active sleepers, children 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.
- It increases the risk of SIDS and suffocation. And of course, don’t forget that co-sleeping increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Parents or objects (like pillows) may unknowingly roll onto the baby at night, leading to injury, suffocation, or death. The AAP says co-sleeping is especially dangerous if the baby is younger than 4 months, was born prematurely, or had a low birth weight. The risk also increases if someone in bed smokes, drinks, or takes drugs—or if the co-sleeping surface is soft and has bedding.
Making the Decision to Co-Sleep
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.