I have been planning to have my new baby sleep in bed with me, perhaps with a co-sleeper some of the time. At my baby shower I was surprised to hear all the different opinions: “Great!” “Don’t do it, you’ll never get her out!” “You’ll sleep better!” “You won’t sleep at all” and, the worst, “Don’t you know that’s dangerous?” What should I believe, and why are there so many different opinions?
Parents all over the world share their beds with their babies. Although many parents find that after the first few months babies sleep better when they are in their own cribs, many breast feeding moms find that everyone sleeps better when a newborn spends part or all of the night in bed with mom in the early weeks.
At the same time, there is a controversy over whether "co-sleeping" is a health risk for a baby. The concern stems from awareness that the position in which a baby sleeps is a contributing factor to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome(SIDS).
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies be put to sleep in their cribs on their backs. Researchers believe that a baby who is sleeping face down or with his face against a soft surface may have more trouble regulating his breathing than a baby who sleeps on his back. So all parents are encouraged to put their babies on their backs for naps or nighttime sleep until the baby can push herself to roll over.
Of course, most babies never have difficulty breathing when they are asleep. That is why SIDS is so rare. Researchers believe that certain intrinsic factors in some babies, combined with environmental factors, put them at higher risk for SIDS. Unfortunately, we don't know what the intrinsic factors are that cause some babies to be vulnerable. We do know that some factors such as maternal smoking before and after the baby's birth, lack of pre-natal care, and premature birth increase the risk of SIDS occurring. When these factors are present, babies are more vulnerable to SIDS if they sleep face down. Because the cause of SIDS is unknown, the advice we give to parents emphasizes prevention of risks that are known to be associated with SIDS even if we don't know if they are the direct cause.
One of the difficulties with interpreting the research is that co-sleeping is positively associated with continuing breastfeeding. Babies who sleep with moms tend to nurse more frequently during the night which promotes a better milk supply. Breastfeeding is considered to be a factor in maintaining all around infant health and is additionally associated with a lower incidence of SIDS. In fact, in countries where co-sleeping is common, the rate of SIDS is lower than in the United States.
Dr. James McKenna, an anthropologist at Notre dame University who has studied the topic of co-sleeping extensively says that since breastfeeding protects against SIDS, and nighttime breastfeeding is one of the main reasons mothers will bring their babies into bed, co sleeping should not be discouraged. A wealth of information and research can be found on the website http://cosleeping.nd.edu
Many parents feel that there are other excellent reasons to sleep with their babies. It is a big adjustment for a mother who is accustomed to carrying her baby all the time inside her to suddenly have her baby out of her reach or out of her sight. It can be hard for both parents if every time that the baby needs to be fed a parent must wake up and get out of bed. Many parents feel that the experience of sleeping next to a baby at night is valuable for building a strong relationship with their child. Even if a baby goes to sleep in a bassinet he may fall asleep next to his mother after a middle of the night feeding.
If you want to have your baby in your bed, these precautions will help keep your baby safe:
- Sleep in a bed that is big enough to provide space between parents and to keep the baby's environment from getting too warm.
- Consider using a co-sleeper if your bed is small. Do not push another bed up against yours--a baby can get trapped in the crack. However, if you use one sheet and mattress cover over both beds this method can work (a sheet alone will not cover a crack snugly)
- Use lightweight sheets and bed covers and don't let them cover the baby's head.
- Use a firm mattress and keep soft pillows to a minimum so that nothing can push into a baby's face. Avoid fluffy comforters.
- Second hand smoke is a known risk factor for SIDS. If you smoke, or if anyone in your home smokes, your baby is at risk for more breathing problems. Try to have a smoke free home, but if you can't, have your baby sleep separately from you.
- A parent should never sleep with a baby if he or she has been drinking or using any drugs.
Last, even though co-sleeping can be of benefit and comfort in the first few months, you don’t have to continue once a baby is nursing less frequently at night or is at the age--usually around four months--when nighttime sleep becomes the norm. The decision to sleep with your baby should be flexible, and what works now may not continue to be that way forever!