Tips for safe co-sleeping

Feb 29, 2012 at 11:15 a.m. ET

How can you make sure your baby is as safe as possible when co-sleeping with you?

From the time my baby was born, he did not like sleeping on his own. We’d place him in the bassinet or his little swing after falling asleep, and he would immediately wake up and scream. He went from newborn naps in our arms to older baby naps in our arms to nighttime co-sleeping. No matter how much we tried to put him back in his crib, he wouldn’t sleep more than the first part of the night before refusing to sleep anywhere but with us.

Despite the inconvenience (and loss of sleep) from baby co-sleeping, it feels like it’s the right thing to do and the thing that he needs and demands. While there’s no proven right or wrong way to get baby to sleep, a 2011 study by Middlemiss, Granger, Goldberg and Nathans published by the National Institutes of Health shows that leaving babies to cry can increase their cortisol, or stress hormone, levels and could be harmful. 

So while it may feel like the right decision for some parents to “sleep train,” we opt to follow our baby’s cues and have defaulted to co-sleeping, which makes everyone feel secure and loved.

More: My Baby Doesn't Sleep, & It's All My Fault

Co-sleeping has long been throughout history and remains in many cultures globally today the default bedtime arrangement for parents and babies (it is mainly modern western culture that has promoted babies sleep in cribs apart from mom). Still, the practice is making a comeback and is on the rise in the U.S., nearly doubling between the 90s and today, with close to 25% of parents claiming to co-sleep with their babies.

With the rise of co-sleeping, also comes the increased risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), a somewhat vague umbrella term that encompasses some known and other unknown causes of death in infants, mainly under the age of six months, largely due to suffocation. 

If you dig a little deeper in the American Academy of Pediatrics, though, their 2016 study shows that the rate of SIDS has actually declined slightly while the rate of accidental suffocation from bed-sharing is slightly up, likely in concert with the increase in co-sleeping. But sleeping in the same bed as your baby doesn’t have to risky.

In fact, some like Leigh Anne O'Connor, IBCLC, argue co-sleeping actually decreases the likelihood of SIDS when breastfeeding, because "The baby and their breastfeeding parent attune to each other in a specific way when they are breastfeeding. The baby picks up the breathing pattern of their parent," said O'Connor. 

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So how can you make sure your baby is as safe as possible when co-sleeping with you? Read on for tips from co-sleep experts Leigh Anne O'Connor, IBCLC, and James J.McKenna, Ph.D., Director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.

1. Create a safe bed: The first and foremost thing you can do to create a safe bed for baby to share with you is to remove all excess linens and blankets and pillows. Ideally, you’d have just a flat bed that isn’t too soft (and no water beds). If you need to use a blanket, use one that is very light and less likely to be a suffocation hazard. If you do use a pillow, try to pull it all the way over and use just the corner so that baby’s head couldn’t slip underneath it.

2. Position your bed safely: In addition to what’s on the bed, equally important is what’s near the bed. Namely, make sure the bed isn’t up against a surface that your baby could suffocate on. Ideally, the bed would be away from all walls and surfaces and the mattress would be positioned on the bed so that it wouldn’t slip. And the bigger the bed the better. A king size bed means more room for everyone (and less chances of someone rolling over onto baby or baby rolling off the bed).

3. Dress appropriately: Part of making sure you don’t need heavy blankets or any blankets is ensuring that everyone, not just baby, are dressed warmly enough. Opt for long sleeves and pants for yourself and a sleep sack for baby so you don’t have to worry about getting cold in the night. Keep the temperature lower at night – ideally in the high 60s – which helps everyone sleep better and prevents overheating. Also, if you have long hair, be sure to tie it up; strangely enough, there’s a risk of baby getting entangled in your hair.

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4. Keep yourself in check: There are a good number of preventable deaths from co-sleeping caused by parents who were drinking and/or smoking. Do not sleep with your baby after drinking – even one glass of wine can impair your senses and increase the likelihood that you could hurt baby. The same holds true for smoking or if you take medication that could make you drowsy.

5. Consider compromise options: Maybe you don’t want baby in a crib in another room, but you’re too worried about sleeping in the same bed. There are options like bassinets that attach to the bed and even ones that go in the bed so baby feels close but there’s a protective layer separating you. This could serve as a happy medium if you too concerned about the risks of co-sleeping.

"Bed-sharing is functionally and biologically entwined with our cultural seismic shift to breastfeeding, leading to the most safe bed-sharing of all,  breast-sleeping, will make this committee utterly defunct and outside the mainstream of our parents nighttime lives with their babies," said James J.McKenna, Ph.D., Director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.

Co-sleeping is not without its challenges, but many believe the benefits outweigh the risks. Just be sure to follow these guidelines and do everything in your power to ensure that your little one has a safe slumber.