Is co-sleeping safe? Here’s what every parent needs to know

Co-sleeping. It’s a word that invokes many feelings. For some mothers, the thought of “co-sleeping” reminds them of midnight snuggles, the delightful smell of the baby, and confidence in their motherhood. For other mothers, it brings up feelings of resentment, a way of being they didn’t choose but felt forced into, doing whatever they could for any minutes of sleep. Some mothers may fear potential loss, and strictly be against co-sleeping in all forms. Needless to say, it is a divisive topic. As a small business led by mothers, our goal is to provide content that encourages and empowers, rather than anything that might contribute to the mud-slinging of motherhood found on social media. However, because the question of co-sleeping comes up A LOT, it’s time to bring it to the table from a neutral and scientific standpoint.

But first, a few disclaimers…

Firstly, as we always tell everyone we work with – either in one on one coaching, training sessions for medical professionals or our free online webinars – at Sweet Babydreams we don’t believe there is ONE right way of raising children or parenting that fits all families and situations. It is crucial for each family to find an approach that not only feels right to them, but also helps the whole family get the rest they need. 

Secondly, especially when we’re talking about the science behind co-sleeping, it’s actually important to first of all make sure we’re all on the same page with terminology. Otherwise we can end up with a lot of misunderstanding, just based on a few mischosen words. Let’s start by differentiating between room-sharing and bed-sharing. Both are often referred to as co-sleeping and it’s often difficult to make out which one is being talked about. 

a mom and dad co-sleeping with their child

Room-Sharing vs. Bed-Sharing

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) room-sharing is the practice where parents and baby sleep in the same room, but on a different sleep surface (parent in their bed, baby in a side-car crib or separate crib). The WHO recommends room-sharing for the first 6 months of a baby’s life and if possible the entire 1st year. This practice has been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS up to 50%.

Bed-sharing, on the other hand, is where parents and child both sleep together on the same surface, ie. in the parental bed. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk and research about whether bed-sharing (sleeping on the same surface) is safe or not. Today most experts agree that bed-sharing can be safe, but only when all Safe Sleep Guidelines are fulfilled. 

Safe sleep guidelines for bed-sharing: 

  • Baby is placed on their back to sleep
  • Baby is dressed appropriately
  • Firm mattress on the ground
  • Minimal bedding – few pillows and no duvets.
  • No bedding close to baby (keep baby’s head higher than parent’s head)
  • No space between mattress and wall
  • Baby must sleep between mom and the wall, not between mom and dad
  • Safe only for breastfeeding mothers and babies, due to increased hormonal responsivity of nursing moms

NOTE: If one or both parents are overweight, if mom smoked during pregnancy or either parent currently smokes, if either parent has consumed alcohol or there are other children or pets in the bed, or either parent takes drugs or is on regular medication, bed-sharing is NOT recommended. 

Unfortunately, what we see in our day-to-day work however, is that oftentimes safe sleep guidelines are omitted or frankly ignored. That makes bed-sharing potentially very dangerous in terms of SIDS, and accidental suffocation. We firmly believe that bed-sharing should remain a planned and informed undertaking, rather than just a reaction. We often meet parents who feel that they HAVE to bed-share in order to get any rest at all, because they are simply exhausted, or that they should do it because otherwise their baby won’t develop a secure attachment. Many times in this case, one parent is more on board than the other, and safe sleep becomes a side topic. 

Isn’t co-sleeping better for the baby?! 

Even though it is sometimes marketed as the one and only approach, there is actually no convincing evidence that babies who co-sleep have a stronger parental attachment or that there are any developmental advantages to bed-sharing compared to sleeping on separate surfaces. They both have their pros and cons.

Studies have shown that babies older than 6 months wake up more frequently at night when room- or bed-sharing, compared to babies who sleep in a separate room. This is because as babies grow and mature, so does their awareness of and sensitivity towards noises in their sleep environment, and sleep habits also become more established. Another factor is also the increased potential for a parent’s overly quick response to wakings, when the baby sleeps right next to them. 

So to reiterate, there is nothing inherently right or wrong with bed-sharing if done in a safe way, but it can prove to be problematic, if it starts to considerably hinder wholesome night sleep and/or daytime naps (for both YOU and your BABY).

Where your baby sleeps is a choice that is up to you.

However, when making this decision you have to consider both the wellbeing of your baby and yourself. If your baby’s sleep is only superficial when bed-sharing, or you as parents don’t get the rest you need, it is probably not the right solution for you. And that’s totally ok! Just because it works for your neighbour, sister or best friend, doesn’t mean it has to work for you!

Another important aspect of bed-sharing is that if your child falls asleep with you present, they will most likely expect your presence throughout the night. This can lead to frequent night-wakings to make sure you’re still nearby, or to receive assistance to fall back to sleep.

In conclusion – if your baby sleeps safe and sound next to you and you both get quality rest, then there is no need to change anything! However, if your child is waking up frequently, either of you are not getting enough quality sleep, or you’re actually fed-up with laying next to them the entire time they take a nap, it might be time to consider transitioning to separate sleep surfaces. If this resonates with you, and you want to make a change, but are unsure how, just reach out to us for an Initial Consult! We can help you evaluate your child’s sleep environment, brainstorm options, and help you make an action plan for change that feels good for both you and your baby. 

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