Co-Sleeping with Your Infant

Bringing home a newborn baby is a very exciting chapter in any parent’s life. Although it can be very challenging, there is also love and amazement for the tiny person that you have created, as well as an intense instinct to protect the infant from anything that may endanger him or her.

Many times, these feelings are accompanied by a desire to have your child nearby at all times, both to feel close to your newborn and to make it easier to care for them. Some parents may even choose to place their baby in the bed next to them at night, which is known as “co-sleeping”. However, due to the many different ways a baby might be harmed during co-sleeping, it is a very controversial subject, especially in the United States.

While many professionals and parents have their opinions on this matter, there is yet to be a clear cut answer as to whether co-sleeping should be a standard option for parents.

Why co-sleep?
There are a number of reasons why people choose to co-sleep. For one thing, breastfeeding at night can be more convenient when the baby is so close by. Feeding sessions tend to be shorter and more frequent, so the infant (and mother) can potentially get more sleep during the night. Sleeping near the mother also often helps the baby fall asleep easier, especially in the first few months, and can help them settle a little sooner when they wake in the middle of the night. Co-sleeping might prove to be easier on the mother, too, because it helps her sync her sleep cycle to her baby’s.

Working parents who have been away from their babies may also enjoy the chance to experience the closeness and physical bonding with their baby that they may have missed while at work.

Why is co-sleeping dangerous?
With all of the positive aspects of co-sleeping, it may be easy to forget that this can be a dangerous practice as well. There are many things to worry about when it comes to co-sleeping, and some of these concerns can even lead to a baby’s death.

The most common way for an infant to be injured while co-sleeping is for a parent to roll over on top of the baby. Suffocation is also a common accident. An infant can get trapped between a mattress, headboard, wall, or other object. If the baby sleeps face down on a waterbed, mattress, or soft bedding like pillows, blankets, and quilts, it can hinder its breathing. If there is an opening in the bed frame, it is also possible for the infant’s head to get caught between it.

Other issues
Death or injury of an infant is the worst, and most devastating risk of co-sleeping. But there are also other, less severe consequences. Sometimes, it can be harder for parents to get a good night’s sleep; they must be conscious throughout the entire night of their proximity to the baby. Also, an infant may start to associate sleep with being close to the parent, making naps and early bedtimes difficult if the parent is not near.

People who should definitely not co-sleep
There are actually some people who should never co-sleep with an infant. Other children, especially toddlers, should not sleep with an infant, as they have a far lesser sense of the baby than an adult would. In fact, it is often recommended that anyone other than a mother not be next to the baby in bed. Parents under the influence of alcohol or drugs should not co-sleep because these substances could impair their awareness of the baby. Smokers should also avoid sleeping with their babies because they are already increasing the chance of SIDS or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and co-sleeping will make the risk even greater.

Tips during co-sleeping
Some parents may still make the decision to co-sleep with their children. In fact, many non-Western cultures see co-sleeping as an important practice and part of development. But it can be less risky in other countries because of a number of factors—including the difference in mattresses and bedding used.

If you do decide to co-sleep, there are certain measures that should be taken in order to help reduce some of the risks. First, the bed can be made safer for a baby to sleep in. It should be far away from draperies or blinds with cords that could strangle the infant. Additionally, pillows, comforters, quilts, and other soft items should be removed from the bed to prevent suffocation. The headboard and footboard should not have openings that are big enough to trap the baby’s head, usually less than 4” wide. The mattress being used should fit the bed frame well because this reduces the possibility that the baby will get trapped between the two. And never, under any circumstances, should a baby be in an adult bed alone.

There are also certain habits that parents themselves can do to help keep the infant safe. Putting the baby on his/her back to sleep reduces the risk of SIDS. Never co-sleep on nights when you have had alcohol or used any medications or drugs that affect your sleeping habits. Parents should try to transition out of co-sleeping by the time the baby reaches 6 months, or the practice could become a habit that is hard to break. Sleeping with the baby past this age can also increase the likelihood that the child will have developmental issues, like separation anxiety.

Co-sleeping alternatives
There are several alternatives that actually provide many of the same benefits as sleeping with the infant and are a lot safer. The baby’s bassinet, play yard, or crib can be placed next to the adult bed; that way, he or she is still within arm’s reach. This can be a good option for other reasons as well– putting the baby in the same room as the mother actually helps to reduce the risk of SIDS.

Many baby stores sell devices called “co-sleepers” now that look like a bassinet without one side. It can be attached directly to the side of the bed, so the baby is still sleeping next to the parent but it reduces the risk of the parent rolling over onto the infant.

Co-sleeping is one of many difficult decisions that parents have to consider carefully. It is best to consult with your pediatrician, who knows your lifestyle habits well and can determine whether co-sleeping is a safe option for you and your infant. Fortunately, there are those alternatives that parents who either cannot or do not want to co-sleep can use. It really is a personal decision, and it is one that needs to be carefully thought out before you come to a final choice. Remember, all aspects of parenting can be tough, but finding help doesn’t have to be. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! For more information about co-sleeping and other parenting challenges, visit the SCAN website at www.scanva.org