Co-sleeping is a widely debated topic within the parenting world with large numbers on each side of the argument.
As a new parent, you already have dozens of things to worry about without adding to it, so we’ve created an easy to follow guide on co-sleeping so you can make an informed decision about whether it’s for you or not.
What is Co-Sleeping?
Co-sleeping is often misunderstood as sleeping in the same bed as your baby or child.
Co-Sleeping - means that you’re sleeping in close proximity to your child which could be the same bed or room.
Room Sharing – This is where a child sleeps in the same room as their parents but in a different piece of furniture i.e. cot or bed,
Bed Sharing – is when either one or both parents share the same bed or sleeping space with their child.
How Have Co-Sleeping Habits Changed Over Time?
Co-sleeping was a social norm several hundred years ago as a way for a mother and child to be close to each other throughout the night.
However, over time this was heavily discouraged and was linked to the spread of diseases throughout society which led to co-sleeping decreasing all over the world.
However, fast forward to the 21st century and bed sharing specifically has seen a resurgence in popularity. One study carried out by the CDC revealed that 24% of parents said they shared a bed with their child either all or most of the time which represented an increased from 6% in 1993.
Bed sharing has seen the most significant rise in the western world where mothers want to remain close to their child at all times to allow them to respond to their needs almost immediately.
Is Co-Sleeping Safe?
What Doctors Say:
According to the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine:
At present, there is not enough evidence to support routine recommendations against the practice of co-sleeping. Parents need to be educated about the current benefits and risks of both co-sleeping and unsafe co-sleeping practices to allow them to then make their own informed decision.
The ISIS Infant Sleep Information Source website notes:
The most recent studies have revealed that a large proportion of bed-sharing deaths occur when an adult sleeping with a baby has been drinking alcohol, smoking or taking drugs which then make then sleep more deeply.
There are times when people fall asleep accidentally whilst still holding their babies which can be extremely dangerous especially if this happens on a sofa or armchair because a baby can get trapped or wedged between the cushions and the adult's body.
James J. McKenna, Ph.D., a world recognised infant sleep authority, notes:
Overall, an overwhelming percentage of bed-sharing deaths can be associated or linked to one other independent risk factor which has contributed to an infant dying. These factors can include an infant being placed on their stomach, left in an adult bed without supervision, other children being present in the be or the baby being placed on top of a pillow.
Drug use and alcohol have historically been linked to poor outcomes when bed-sharing with babies so if these substances are present then you should not be bed sharing.
What About The Risk of SIDS
The American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends against bed-sharing, however, they do recommend that babies under the age of six months and up to one years old should sleep in the same room as their parents.
One study investigated the 400 SIDS infants and their analysis revealed that 36% were bed sharing with their parents. SIDS isn’t that straightforward because although bed-sharing increases the risk, this raises further when paired with other factors. Premature babies with a low birth rate are also at a greater risk.
This was proven in another study which revealed that although bed-sharing increases the risk of SIDS, the risk of it occurring increased dramatically when it’s paired with other factors such as smoking or sleeping on a sofa.
One British study revealed that bed-sharing still remained a SIDS risk even when the parents didn't drink, smoke or use drugs. But as with all sleep safety studies, the babies sleep environment and sleep location play huge contributing factors to the overall safety of co-sleeping.
Advantages of Co-Sleeping
It’s normal for babies, especially newborns, to wake up multiple times throughout the night whether this is for food, comfort or discomfort. By having your baby close you will lessen the amount of time that you’re awake.
The shorter your disturbances through the night the better quality sleep you’ll have and babies usually get better quality sleep when they can feel that their parents are sleeping close by.
If you have other people or children sleeping in the home then if you’re co-sleeping it’s less likely that your baby crying will disturb them compared to if your baby is in their own room.
If your baby is sharing the same bed, then this is a great way for parent and baby to be close to each other and bond throughout the night.
This is especially the case if your baby wakes up during the night then you are close enough to quickly reach out and tend to their needs. Often just them feeling your touch is enough to soothe them. This is often the main benefit shared by bed sharing parents that they’re able to be in constant physical contact throughout the night.
Make up for missed bonding throughout the day
Times have changed and it’s relatively uncommon for both parents to be able to give up work to stay with their newborn throughout the day. This means that once you have completed your maternity or paternity leave that you can be at work away from them for up to 12 hours each weekday.
Over time this can affect the bond that you have, but Co-sleeping is a way of you feeling closer to your baby even if you’re both sleeping. 20% of mothers find difficulty in bonding with their children, so this is one way to improve it.
Easier to Breastfeed
Breastfeeding can be a tiring time especially night time feeds. This can be made worse if your baby is sleeping in another room which increases the distance you have to move, creating larger disturbances to your sleep.
Co-sleeping allows mothers to breastfeed in the comfort of their own room and even bed if they choose. Once you have finished breastfeeding you can put your baby back to sleep quickly.
Naturally, babies are supposed to sleep with their mothers and this normal throughout many species within the animal kingdom. Separating a baby and its mother can be distressing for the baby and they sleep much better when they feel safe and secure.
It’s normal for a mother to feel slightly anxious if they aren’t within arm's length of their child which can be made even worse if they’re sleeping in a completely different room.
Lowering anxiety for both mother and baby will increase sleep quality so you’ll feel more refreshed in the morning despite having to wake up if your baby wakes up throughout the night.
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the unexplained death, usually during sleep, of an apparently healthy baby who is aged one year or under.
Not to be mistaken with bed sharing, sleeping in the same room as your baby has been found to reduce the risk of SIDS by up to 50%.
This is because you’re closer to your baby so more likely to be alerted if they encounter discomfort throughout the night.
Improve Baby Development
Sharing a room with your baby can improve the development of their senses. In their early growth stages, they need to learn how to respond to the sensory signals of other human beings. This includes many different signals including movement, smell, sound, touch and heat.
If a baby is sleeping in a room by themselves then throughout the night the development of these senses will be halted. A newborn baby is likely to spend the majority of their time with their parents who will be depended on for the development of these senses.
Drawbacks of Co-Sleeping
Decrease Relationship Intimacy
It’s normal that right after having a child you may not be ready to be intimate with your partner right away. But there’s a high chance that eventually you’ll want return back to how it was.
For most couples with children, the evenings are the main time that they get to be alone together but if you’re sharing a bed with your children then this can cut short any intimacy that you want to have and make it almost impossible.
However, it’s important to remember that this is likely to only be intimate and once your child moves into their own room your normal sex life can go back to normal.
Can Build Dependency
If your baby spends the first few years of their life co-sleeping then this can build a level of dependency and associate sleep with being next to their parent.
This means that when it’s time for them to sleep alone they may find it hard to drift off to sleep without being within arm’s reach of their mother.
Need Increased Levels of Attention
Some children will not just develop the dependency above, but this can develop into needing additional things from the mother to get to sleep which can include back rubbing or being held to fall asleep.
This can be confused with anxiety because they’ll find it hard to sleep without a parent around to soothe them. But because these symptoms seem very much like anxiety it can convince the parent to stay close when it’s bedtime.
May Disturb Your Natural Sleeping Pattern
Children of different ages require different amounts of sleep each night and this will also impact the time that they go to sleep.
If your family all share a bed then older children and parents may have to go to bed much earlier than they want to for the benefit of the youngest child. This can lead to frustration, especially if your body is not ready to go to sleep leaving you awake in bed for several hours.
Can Cause Relationship Tension
It’s important that you discuss co-sleeping as a couple and don’t make individual decisions. Making a decision alone can cause tension if your partner doesn’t agree with your decision which can cause problems especially when you consider you spend, on average, a third of your life sleeping.
The Risk of Bed Sharing
Specifically, for bed sharing, there is an increased risk of SIDS which is often affected by several other factors which can include the infants' weight, age and birth. Because you’re in such close proximity to your baby it can also bring the risk of suffocation, strangulation and entrapment.
When Not To Co-Sleep?
It’s important to understand that there are some specific scenarios when you should not co-sleep as there is an increased risk of danger:
• Either you or your partner smokes. This is even if you don’t smoke in the bedroom.
• Either you or your partner has drunk alcohol or taken drugs (including medications that may make you drowsy)
• You’re extremely tired
• Your baby was born prematurely (37 weeks or less)
• Your baby had a low birth weight (2.5kg or 5½ lbs or less)
• Never sleep on an armchair or couch with your baby, this can escalate the risk of SIDS by 50 times
• Keep your baby’s head uncovered at all times. Their sleeping blanket should be tucked in no higher than their shoulders
• Ensure your baby is in the “feet to foot” position, with their feet placed at the end of the cot or Moses basket
Bed Sharing and it’s the Effect on Child Development
So a key talking point and popular idea are that parent-child bed sharing has a negative effect on child independence long term throughout a child’s life. It’s normal in the western world for us to think that children need to develop their skills so they can function as independent individuals.
This drives the idea that children should learn from early how to self soothe and that this is an important milestone in their lives. Evidence has suggested that children who co-sleep in the first year of their lives are significantly better at social interactions with other children their age in comparison to children who sleep alone.
A longitudinal study took place to explore parent-child bed sharing. The study involved two hundred five families who were followed from 1975. A child within each family was then followed from the third trimester of their mother pregnancy until the age of 18.
Bed sharing was proven to be significantly linked to increased cognitive competence in early childhood at the age of six. At this age, bed sharing also was not associated with the development of sleep problems, sexual pathology, or any other problematic consequences.
At the age of 18, it was then proven that these children who had a history of childhood bed sharing had no relation to any development of pathology or problematic consequences,
Recommended Guidelines for Co-Sleeping
Keep Bedding Minimal and Light
Ensure that bedding and pillows are out of reach of your baby’s head because this can cause their temperature to rise and also poses a smothering risk. It’s recommended that you use light sheets and blankets instead of a high tog duvet which will often be too thick.
If you need to use a duvet then opt for a lighter tog duvet and only use it up to waist level to ensure that it doesn’t cover your baby’s head. Another alternative is to use a purpose-built baby sleeping bag.
Keep Sleeping Space Clear
If you have pillows in your bed, don’t allow your baby to sleep on them. Remove the pillows from near them because throughout the night they could roll into a pillow and have breathing difficulties.
Keep your bed clear of bumpers, toys and other objects that could potentially cause issues. This is the case no matter where your baby is sleeping whether it’s co-sleeping, bed sharing or they’re in their own room.
Back Sleeping Position
Always ensure that your back is sleeping on their back and never on their tummy or sides. This decreases the risk of suffocation and SIDS.
This has been proven in research by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development who have run a campaign promoting this sleep position which has led to almost a 50% drop in SIDS rates across the USA.
Ensure Surface is Firm
Babies ideal sleeping position is on their back. A firm sleeping surface helps to keep them on their back whilst minimising the risk of them rolling onto their stomach which can lead to their airways becoming blocks causing breathing difficulties which can be fatal.
Traditional adult mattresses are often soft and have some degree of the sink which is not suitable for babies. So it’s important to ensure that your mattress is firm enough. Ensure that your baby is lying on the mattress surface and not any plush, soft duvets or covers.
Don’t attempt to co-sleep on a bean bag, waterbed, air bed or other surfaces that sag. These surfaces are far too soft and some have gaps where your baby could become trapped.
Agree Between Both Parents
If you decide to bed share then it’s important that both parents have agreed and are comfortable with the arrangement.
It’s also important to ensure that both parents are aware when the baby is present in the bed each time that bed sharing is taking place. This will keep the baby safer and minimise the chance of a parent unwittingly rolling over accidentally on to the baby.
Positioning Around Parents
Place your baby beside one parent only and not between two parents because this will decrease the chance of them either slipping under the bedding or accidentally being rolled on by a parent.
Do Not Use Chairs Or Sofas
Under no circumstances should you fall asleep when you’re on a chair or couch because you could easily drop your baby or they could become trapped between the spaces in the chair or down the back or sides.
Remove Other Siblings Or Pets
Do not let other siblings share the same bed as your baby because your sibling is unlikely to understand the full risks and may roll over or simply just place their arm across your baby’s mouth which can cause breathing difficulties.
If you have a young toddler then they may find it hard to understand that you need to focus on the baby when you’re in bed. If this continues then you need to transition them into their own bed. If this is still a struggle then it will be safer to use a cot near the bed for your baby.
If you’re used to having pets bed sharing, then you’ll need to remove these too.
Remove Strangulation Risks
If you bed sharing then you need to make sure that you remove all strangulation risks that may be present. This includes everyday items such as curtains or blind cords which your baby could become tangled in throughout the night. If you have long hair you should all tie it back before you go to sleep.
Never Leave Your Baby Alone
Make sure at least one person is always in the bed with your baby even if you think you’re only going to leave for a couple of minutes because there is still the risk that they could roll off the bed which only takes a split second.
If no one can stay with your baby then you need to either bring them with you or place them into a safer location such as a cot or Moses basket.
Regulate their Temperature
When co-sleeping your baby will be close to your bodies which means that this will naturally raise your baby’s skin temperature. Despite this, their body will be able to regulate their own temperature so they don’t overheat but there are several steps you can take.
Firstly you need to keep their head uncovered and the bedding light. You should still put your baby in their usual pyjamas but as a general guideline is if you’re comfortable with the current temperature then your baby likely is too.
Remove Space Between Bed and Wall
There should be no room between the bed and adjoining wall because this can create a potential hazard of your baby rolling in the gap and becoming trapped.
How to Transition out of Co-sleeping
Co-sleeping is not an arrangement that should be permanent and is only recommended in the first year of a baby’s life. It’s a good idea to begin the transition to their own cot or room sooner rather than later, and many parents often worry that co-sleeping will make this transition more difficult.
Understandably if your child is used to bed sharing then they can find it harder to transition into sleeping in their own bed.
You’ve probably started to realise, co-sleeping has both pros and cons. The process of stopping co-sleeping can seem difficult at first, but the main thing is you need a plan to succeed.
We’ve outlined a number of key ways that you can make this transition period easier and before you know it your child will be sleeping alone without any issues.
Stick to a Consistent Night Time Routine
If you’ve decided that you want to stop co-sleeping you need to stick to it. There will be nights where your child just doesn’t want to and will try to get back into bed with you. When this happens you need to stick to your routine otherwise this can ruin all the hard work you’ve done to get to this point.
The number one reason for failing to stop co-sleeping is because of inconsistency. You need to pick a “quit co-sleeping” date that you stick to.
Inform Other People of Your Plan
To implement a consistent sleep routine you need to ensure that all of your child’s other caregivers are aware and on board with your plans. There’s no good you deciding to not co-sleep and then when they’re left with your partner, they then co-sleep.
The first people this should be discussed with is your partner to make sure that you both agree with the arrangement.
Encourage Self Soothing
If you’re co-sleeping, then chances are that if your child woke throughout the night then it was only a matter of seconds until you soothed them. When you stop co-sleeping they are bound to wake up in the middle of the night, but they need to learn to soothe themselves without you.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t tend to them if they start crying, but you can reassure them without having to pick them up and bring them into your own bed.
Make it Fun
Ceasing co-sleeping doesn’t have to be a sad situation, and although there will be a feeling of apprehension which is normal. This can also be scary for your child but you can easily spin this into a fun situation.
You can do this by involving your child in all the steps along the way including picking their own bedding, sheets or pyjamas. This will make your child excited and look forward to sleeping in their space.
It may seem daunting at first but co-sleeping has to eventually stop at some point! You need to be patient and accept that it may take some time for your child to fully adjust to sleeping alone especially if they’ve spent large amounts of their life up to this point co-sleeping.
The most important thing is that you don’t give up and there is not set time this will take because every child is different.
So, Should I Co-Sleep?
If you like the sound of co-sleeping but still worried about the potential risks of bed sharing then you can explore buying a bedside cot. This is a specialised cot that can be attached to the side of your bed.
The cot has one side removed so that it is still near you but remains separate from the bed allowing you to still reach your baby and comfort them throughout the night. If you haven’t got the budget to buy a bedside cot, then you can put a traditional cot next to your bed.
Your decision to co-sleep is very much a personal choice but the most important thing is to digest all the available information to make sure you make an informed decision.
There are some scenarios when you should under no circumstances co sleep such as sleeping on a sofa, if you’ve consumed alcohol, cigarettes or if your baby was born prematurely.