Here in the U.S. new parents are warned off of co-sleeping – sharing a family bed with our newborn babies – but is it as dangerous as we’re led to believe?
Being a new parent is rough. Newborns tend to sleep around two hours at a stretch, and that means so do you. I had no idea what exhaustion actually was until I became a mom. Of course, I love my baby boy, and we have lots of magical moments too, but I can’t pretend that those one a.m. wake-ups were fun. Or the one at three. Or at five.
My son not only had trouble staying asleep, but once he was up, it was tough to get him back down. I tried feeding him, rocking him, singing to him, swaddling – it still took 30-45 minutes to get him back down after one of his wake-ups. And then he’d sleep for an hour or two and it would start again. You can imagine how exhausting that is, even if you’ve never gone through it yourself, right?
Then, one night, I was feeding him in the bed and decided to just hold him and lie down. Just for a minute. We both fell asleep. For four hours. I had read the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warnings that co-sleeping increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). But we had just slept! For four hours!
From then on any time Darrol Henry had trouble going back down after a wake-up, I brought him into the bed with me. I took safety precautions that I read about on pro-co-sleeping forums, and he safely coslept with us part time for his first three or four months.
My co-sleeping story is not a unique one. Another new mom I know recently told me a similar one, and there’s even research showing that families that cosleep actually get more sleep.
My son is now eight months old, and he’s been sleeping happily in his crib since around four months. What got me thinking about co-sleeping recently was an excellent article from Sarah Kerrigan at WBUR on the topic. The gist of the article was this: Parents are practicing co-sleeping, so maybe instead of telling us that we’re going to kill our babies, we should talk about how to do it safely.
Kerrigan equates the AAP stance on co-sleeping to abstinence education in schools. It’s not working, and maybe it’s time to change the conversation. I couldn’t agree more.
There is some excellent research on co-sleeping that paints a different picture from the AAP’s verions. Dr. Sears addressed many concerns about co-sleeping, including some examples of when the practice may not be safe. This article from The Baby Bond also shares some great research on how to have a safe family bed and the benefits of co-sleeping.
Sharing a bed with a newborn can be very safe, as long as you take some precautions. Here are some tips for safer co-sleeping:
- Your mattress should be nice and firm – no waterbeds.
- Blankets are a hazard, just like they are in a crib. If you’re co-sleeping during cold weather like I was with my son, bundle up at bedtime. I slept in sweats and thick socks.
- You also want to get rid of any pillows, because they are a smothering hazard. I know, it doesn’t sound super comfy, but it’s a lot better than sleeping for an hour or two at a time!
- Do not cosleep if you’ve been drinking or taking any drugs that induce sleep (over the counter, prescription, or otherwise).
- Do not smoke in the family bed. This might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised.
- Co-sleeping on a sofa is not safe.
- Keep siblings out of the bed with very young infants.
- Put yourself between your child and the edge of the bed.
Other Co-sleeping Concerns
When I first started co-sleeping with Darrol Henry, most people didn’t default to “you’re going to kill your baby.” Instead, they told me that I’d never get him out of the bed. My husband and I took that to heart, because we did not want a family bed long-term. Darrol slept mostly with us until three months, and then we started weaning him of, only bringing him into the bed if we were at the end of our rope. By four months, he was happily sleeping in his crib.
I have heard stories from moms and dads who have co-sleeping kids that don’t want to leave the family bed. I did a little bit of research and found this Circle of Moms forum with some helpful advice. It sounds like weaning your child off of the family bed is the best way to go. Maybe start by transitioning to room-sharing, where your child has a bed in your room. You can gradually move that bed further from your own until he’s in his own room.
Dr. Heather Wittenberg wrote about transitioning from co-sleeping to separate beds in a column at Parents.com. She brings up some great points about child development and timing your transition.
Just like any other parenting practice, how and where your child sleeps is very personal. You have to do what feels right for your baby and for your family as a whole. If that means sharing a bed, I think it’s much better to go into that decision educated about how to do it safely rather than full of guilt.
I would love to hear from other co-sleeping moms and dads out there! Do you get more sleep in the family bed? What made you decide to try co-sleeping, despite what the AAP has to say about it?