Bed-sharing: things to think about
Many parents who share a bed with their baby – also called co-sleeping – believe it helps their baby feel safe and secure. They like the close bodily contact, feel that it’s rewarding and satisfying, and believe it’s good for their relationship with their baby.
Some parents also bed-share because they find it more practical. Breastfeeding during the night can be easier – the hungry baby can be fed then settled back to sleep quickly.
Researchers agree that babies who sleep near their mothers are more likely to breastfeed successfully and to continue breastfeeding for longer.
For these reasons, people who believe in co-sleeping feel it can be worth making the adjustments necessary to learn to sleep with a small child.
But sharing a bed with your baby is a complex issue that involves many factors. There isn’t currently enough evidence for or against bed-sharing.
It’s recommended that your baby sleeps in a cot next to your bed for the first 6-12 months. Research has shown this lowers the risk of SIDS for your baby.
Although some people believe that sharing a bed with your baby can help reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), there’s no evidence for this.
Co-sleeping is associated with an increased risk of SIDS and fatal sleep accidents in some circumstances. The risk of SIDS is increased by co-sleeping if:
- you or your partner is a smoker
- you or your partner take drugs, alcohol or any type of sedative medication that causes heavy sleep
- your baby is less than four months old, or was premature or born small for gestational age – that is smaller than is typical for the time baby was growing in the womb.
It’s never advisable to share a bed with your baby if you smoke or take drugs.
Guidelines for co-sleeping
The usual recommendations for safe sleeping apply to babies who share their parents’ beds:
- Put your baby on his back to sleep (never on his tummy or side).
- Make sure his head is uncovered during sleep.
- Keep the sleep environment smoke-free.
Here are some simple additional safety precautions for co-sleeping. These will reduce the chance of SIDS or fatal sleep accidents:
- Don’t sleep with your baby on the couch. This is very dangerous, because your baby can get trapped between you and the cushions and can suffocate.
- Make sure your bed is firm. Don’t use a water bed, or anything soft underneath (for example, a lamb’s wool underlay).
- Use lightweight blankets, not heavy quilts or doonas.
- Make sure that bedding can’t cover your baby’s head.
- Don’t use any pillows.
- An infant sleeping bag can be used instead of bedding, so that your baby doesn’t share adult bedding.
- Put your baby beside one parent, not between parents, so there’s less chance she’ll slip under the bedding.
- Put your baby where he can’t fall out of bed, but not against pillows or a wall. Babies can suffocate under pillows and have died after becoming trapped between the bed and the wall. A safer alternative is to put the mattress on the floor.
- A ’side car crib’ that attaches to your bed provides a separate sleeping surface but keeps your baby close for breastfeeding.
When co-sleeping is a problem
Here are some situations in which co-sleeping might be a problem:
- Parents bring a baby into bed because of difficulties with the baby waking or being unsettled at night. For some, this turns out to be an effective solution. For others, it isn’t satisfactory for them or their baby. Also, the parents’ bed might not be safely set up for the baby.
- There’s lack of agreement or tension between partners about co-sleeping.
- Parents want their child to move into a separate bed before the child wants to move. Many parents who sleep with their children also report that children usually want their own beds by the age of two or three years. It can take longer than this, though, and sometimes parents get sick of co-sleeping before their children do.
Co-sleeping: stats and facts
Bed-sharing with a parent is becoming a far more common experience in western societies such as the USA and Australia. Research has found that:
- almost half (42%) of two-week-old infants sleep in their parents’ bed, but this figure decreases to 27% at 12 months – most of these for more than two hours in each 24-hour period
- over two-thirds (67%) of mothers also slept with their partner, and 5-15% also slept with a second child
- most babies bed-share at night, but there are some who only bed-share during the day
- an increasing portion of babies who died suddenly and unexpectedly shared a sleep surface with an adult for their last sleep.