If there's one parenting choice that's guaranteed to polarize, it's co-sleeping. I've experienced the backlash against sharing a bed with my baby firsthand. "But you're harming your baby!" exclaimed one friend — who swiftly became a former friend — when I casually mentioned over dinner that my healthy, happy 3-month-old bedded in with us every night.
I come from a family of co-sleepers, so it was more of an instinct than a choice — and one my husband was fully on board with (I'd say this is crucial if you want your relationship to survive). Co-sleeping isn't for everyone, but if you're leaning toward it — or just want to feel better about your choice in the face of adversity and judgment — here are some of the pretty amazing benefits of sharing a bed with your kids.
Less risk for SIDS
A 2005 study published in Paediatric Respiratory Reviews revealed that babies who co-sleep may be at less risk for sudden infant death syndrome than babies who sleep alone. The lowest SIDS rates in the world coincide with high rates of co-sleeping. "SIDS occurrences are among the lowest in the world in Hong Kong, where co-sleeping is extremely common," wrote Dr. James J. McKenna, professor of anthropology and the director of the Center for Behavioral Studies of Mother-Infant Sleep at Notre Dame University, in Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends room-sharing, preferably until the baby turns 1 but at least for the first six months, stating that this decreases the risk of SIDS by as much as 50 percent.
McKenna's research suggests that sleeping next to a parent encourages a baby’s healthy breathing patterns. The amount of CO2 a mom (or dad) expires in their breath acts as a potential backup if the baby’s own breathing ability slows down or fluctuates. The theory is that the baby’s nasal area responds to the presence of CO2 by breathing faster.
McKenna also writes in his book that babies who sleep with their mothers and breastfeed spend more time in sleep stages one and two, the lighter stages of sleep, which is believed to be physiologically more beneficial for babies than stages three and four, the deepest sleep stages. In stages three and four, arousal is more difficult during a dangerous apnea (where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing). Shorter periods of deeper-stage sleep encouraged by co-sleeping may protect babies with arousal deficiencies, which have been linked to SIDS.
According to La Leche League, if you are a nonsmoker, sober and unimpaired and breastfeeding and your baby is healthy and full-term, on their back and lightly dressed and you both are on a safe surface, "your baby in bed is at no greater risk for SIDS than if he's nearby in a crib."
Co-sleeping makes those regular nighttime feeds easier simply because nursing moms don't have to leave their beds. "Co-sleeping allows for an easier breastfeeding relationship, and research shows that families who co-sleep and breastfeed get more hours of sleep," certified private-practice lactation consultant and parent coach Leigh Anne O'Connor tells SheKnows. "While the sleep patterns may be different, over a period of 24 hours, they get more sleep."
Co-sleeping made breastfeeding easier for Maria Lianos-Carbone, author of Oh Baby! A Mom’s Self-Care Survival Guide for the First Year. "We were all finally getting sleep," she tells SheKnows. "I set up a basket with a changing pad, diapers and wipes by my bed. Diaper changes happened right on the bed so I wouldn’t even have to get up. Once my boys were 6 months old, it was easier to breastfeed at night. My baby would be curled up in my arm, and once he’d awaken, I’d slip up my top and offer my breast. It was effortless, and we’d both fall back asleep. The thing is, you’re so in tune with your baby that once you feel him rousing from sleep, you’re also up. Although you’re sleeping, you’re aware of his presence."
More confident kids
According to pediatrician Dr. William Sears, kids who co-sleep tend to have more confidence, less anxiety and are overall more well-adjusted than children who don’t co-sleep. Licensed therapist Melinda Hayne can attest to this as a co-sleeping mama herself. “I believe it's most likely due to the increased bonding/attachment to the child's primary caregiver,” she tells SheKnows. “Moments of cozy snuggling and knowing that the parent is so close by send a ‘you’re safe’ message to the child. Young children internalize their environment, which then develops into their worldview: the way they see life, others and themselves. This early nurturing can carry over into later childhood and adulthood in the form of what we call well-being.”
Children of all ages can benefit from this feeling of increased security, said O'Connor. "Older children who co-sleep may feel that they talk to their parents in bed in ways they do not when they are awake and the lights are on. They feel less vulnerable and are able to open up."
If you co-sleep with a baby, the most important thing to know is how to do it safely.
- Your baby should be on their back on a firm sleep surface with a tight-fitting sheet and away from soft bedding, including blankets, pillows and soft toys. This rules out sofas, recliners and any soft or sagging surfaces that may cause your baby to roll against you or stop them from lifting their head free.
- Make sure there are no spaces between the mattress and the headboard, side rails or wall where your baby could get stuck.
- Ensure your bed is free from unused pillows, stuffed toys, heavy covers and comforters and anything nearby that dangles or tangles, such as cords, strings, scarves, ribbons and elastics.
- Never co-sleep if you have been smoking, drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
Visit La Leche League for more safe co-sleeping and bed-sharing tips.