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Don’t rule out co-sleeping just yet — it may actually be good for your baby

It’s a dilemma faced by many first-time mothers: to co-sleep or not to co-sleep? With persuasive arguments for either side, it’s one of those parenting decisions in which gut feeling may put the strongest case forward.

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In December 2014, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) updated its co-sleeping guidelines to make parents aware of the increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) when parents fall asleep alongside babies in bed or on a sofa. However, the benefits of breastfeeding nixed any definitive recommendation against co-sleeping.

It’s difficult not to be influenced by our immediate circles — friends, family members, local health professionals — when we have important parenting decisions to make. For first-time mothers in particular, the energy to go against the grain may not be there, and that’s OK.

It might help mothers who want to co-sleep to know that in many, many parts of the world, the practice is common — the norm, even. In Japan, for example, parents tend to sleep with their babies in their beds, and Japan has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. In other parts of Asia, as well as in Africa and Latin America, co-sleeping is well established.

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James McKenna, a biological anthropologist, carried out a co-sleeping study at his Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame and found evidence of “breastsleeping” — physiological synchronization between mother and baby, particularly when the child is breastfed.

This is a view shared by renowned U.S. paediatrician Dr. Sears, who says that co-sleeping can help babies grow up to have reduced levels of anxiety and great self-esteem and to become more independent and affectionate. Sears points to research indicating that co-sleeping can help stabilize an infant’s temperature and heart rhythms, which can reduce the risk of SIDS.

Robert LeVine and Sarah LeVine, authors of Do Parents Matter? Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax, also agree with McKenna, writing, “the proven benefits of mother-infant co-sleeping far outweigh the largely imaginary risks. Putting a baby in a separate room at night encumbers parents and leads to their exhaustion without guaranteeing the safety or future char­acter development of their children.”

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NHS advice to parents is not to sleep with your baby if you smoke, if you have taken alcohol, drugs or medication that results in a deeper sleep, or if the baby is less than 3 months old, was born prematurely or had a low birth weight. The official guidelines also advise against falling asleep with your baby on a sofa, couch, arm chair or beanbag chair under any circumstances.

Parents can’t go far wrong if they heed the advice of their doctor, but it’s also worth considering how co-sleeping practices differ around the world. In fact, the same could be said for all aspects of parenting. There’s a big world out there, and we can learn a lot from those who do things differently.

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