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A lot of parents sleep with an infant in the bed. One recent study found that 41% of mothers always or often sleep with their baby, and another study found 70 to 80% of parents share their bed with a baby or child.

The reason is obvious to anyone who remembers life with a newborn. Co-sleeping may be the only way exhausted parents get any sleep at all. Instead of getting up to feed or comfort an infant every two hours, a new mother can nurse her baby right in bed, without even fully opening her eyes. Advocates of co-sleeping believe that babies who sleep in their parents’ bed sleep better, are calmer, and gain weight more quickly.

But pediatricians and public health officials warn against co-sleeping. Some of (but not all) SIDS deaths in 2010, for example, occurred when babies were sleeping with adults. Doctors are quite reasonably concerned. However, telling parents “not ever” to bed-share cuts off conversation about safe ways to sleep with an infant if that’s what parents want to do. It makes moms and dads hide their family’s sleeping arrangements and that may keep them from learning key tips.

So, in the interest of child safety and parents’ rest and sanity, here are some co-sleeping tips:

  1. Both parents should agree to invite baby into their bed. Only if both mom and dad are happy with this arrangement can it be certain that both parents will follow the rest of the safety tips.
  2. Neither parent should go to bed intoxicated or otherwise impaired. This means that parents should not be under the influence of sleeping pills or other medications that make them groggy.
  3. Second-hand smoke represents another risk factor for co-sleeping babies. Second-hand smoke is a known SIDS risk and parents who smoke bring  smoke particles with them wherever they are. The risk to a baby of second-hand smoke increases when in close proximity to a smoker for the entire night, even if the parent never smokes in the bedroom.
  4. Obesity is another parent characteristic that argues against co-sleeping.
  5. Sleep surfaces should be firm and flat and placed so that the baby cannot be trapped between a parent and the wall. Bedding should be minimal. Keep babies away from pillows and on top of blankets, not under them.
  6. Just as in her own crib, a co-sleeping baby should sleep on her back.
  7. If you are not breastfeeding, put your baby to sleep in his own bed. You have to get up to bottle feed him anyway.

Bed-sharing has been shown to make breastfeeding more successful and to promote regulations of infant breathing and body temperature. Done right, co-sleeping may actually protect against SIDS. Certainly, down through human history, bed-sharing has been the norm.

This may become an issue in your own household, as your infant grows into a toddler and then a preschooler. Without an exit-plan, you and your partner may find that co-sleeping has become the norm for your children. Kicking them out and into their own rooms gets more difficult older the children get. An infant in the bed is one thing. A wiggly, squirmy, bed-hogging child or two is quite another.

If you decide to co-sleep your infant, your pediatrician may frown. The American Academy of Pediatrics is still dead-set against it. But at least you can be confident you’re doing bed-sharing right.



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.