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Bed-Sharing with Baby: The Benefits & Dangers of Co-sleeping

Sharing a bed with your baby is one of those controversial parenting issues that can leave people fiercely divided. On the one hand, it’s understandable that parents would want the close, intimate contact with their little ones that bed sharing provides. And indeed, such close bonding delivers numerous benefits for both parent and child. On the other hand, you can’t ignore the fact that bed sharing comes with risks that can endanger your baby.

How common is bed sharing?
It’s hard to say for certain. One study found that 13% of parents slept with their infants in 2000, up from 5.5% in 1993. (Gibbs, 2007) Yet a more recent survey out of the University of Virginia documented much higher rates, finding that 42% of families in the U.S. bed share when their baby is 2 weeks old and 34% bed share at 3 months. (Karp, 2012)

The benefits of bed sharing
The benefits of sharing a bed with your child are numerous. Being in close proximity is reassuring to your baby. It lowers stress, and decreases the length of the infant’s crying hours throughout the day, which in Western societies can last in excess of 3 hours a day. Bed-sharing babies also nurse more often and for 3-times as long per feeding. The extra touch and tactile stimulation means better growth and brain development. (Barr, 1997; Mckenna, 2002)

Despite the messages throughout the media that give touch a bad name, close, intimate touching and pleasurable contact is extremely beneficial for children. This type of contact releases a number of positive neurotransmitters that promote emotional health and reduce stress. Recent studies have shown that co-sleeping children turn out better-adjusted sexually and are less likely to have psychiatric disorders. (Knight, 2008)

Parents receive similar benefits in brain chemistry. Studies have even found that fathers who sleep next to their babies experience a sleep decline in nighttime testosterone levels not seen in men who slept in a different room, and have lower testosterone levels overall. (Peck, 2013) This changes their brain chemistry in a way that makes them calmer, kinder, more responsive fathers. Mothers receive similar benefits, and studies show parents who bed share get just as much sleep as those who don’t. You’ll probably get even more, since it results in a less-stressed infant. (Barr, 1997; McKenna, 2002)

It’s also what children have experienced throughout 99.9% of human history. Historically, kids have always slept alongside their parents. “It’s probably as natural as giving birth and breastfeeding,” says James McKenna, professor of psychiatry at Notre Dame and author of Sleeping With Your Baby, “and the only way our species would ever have survived; the rich sensory environment of a baby sleeping with its mother – her smell, her sound, her touch – provides a catalyst for brain development. It’s possible for mothers to share the bed safely, if they have knowledge of bed-sharing safety issues.” (Knight, 2008) As anthropologists Dr. William Haviland, Dr. Harald Prins, Dr. Dana Walrath and Bunny McBride (2005, p. 8) note, “Only in the past two hundred years, generally in Western industrialized societies, has it been considered proper for them to sleep apart. In fact, it amounts to a cultural experiment in child rearing.”

Bed sharing proponents point out that babies in Japan don’t have a higher SIDS risk, possibly because they sleep on hard futons. Studies in England, Canada and the U.S. have also had mixed results, some showing no increased risk from bed sharing so long as parents aren’t smokers and remain sober and attentive. (Karp, 2012)

The dangers of bed sharing with a baby
The problem with bed sharing is that babies can suffocate rather easily. They don’t have the muscle strength to free themselves or change positions if their head gets caught in the wrong spot. Babies can be so sensitive that even a blanket placed in the wrong position can pose a potential suffocation risk. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, is largely believed to be caused by respiratory issues. So when you put a baby in a bed with all the blankets and soft items experts say shouldn’t be in a baby’s crib and add to the mix two unconscious adults who are prone to tossing and turning, it can dramatically raise the risk for suffocation. “Let Sleeping Children Lie” by stewickie

Studies have been done to document what happens to infants sharing a bed throughout the night, and the results are alarming. In a British study, one-third of sleeping moms accidentally rested an arm or a leg on their baby in their sleep. Meanwhile, infant sleep experts in New Zealand conducted a study where they videotaped 80 infants – 40 in cribs and 40 who were bed sharing. They found that the bed sharing babies typically had their head covered for a total of nearly one hour per night. Usually, the mom or the baby cleared the blanket away. But in five instances the babies still had their head covered when they awoke in the morning. In addition, babies who bed share typically spend 66% of sleep time on their side, not on their back as recommended. (Karp, 2012) This is why most medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, advise against bed sharing.

The risk isn’t likely, but it is real. Think of it like driving. The odds of you getting into a serious accident tomorrow are not real high, but it does happen. If you were to forego buckling your kids up for a year, you’ll probably get away with it. But of course if you happen to be the one whose child is snatched away, odds and statistics aren’t going to mean much to you then. So it is with bed sharing. You’ll probably get away with it, but the risks are real, and they lead to the very real deaths of dozens of babies each year.

For this reason, we would recommend you have your baby sleep in a crib or bassinet next to your bed, (or in a specially designed bed bassinette), at least for the first 6 months, when the risk of SIDS is highest. After that, as they get older, bed share with your child as much as you’d like.

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