To Share or Not to Share: Is Infant Co-Sleeping Safe?

By Stacey McKenna


On July 4, 2014, after hours of futile pushing, Tracy Baker had an emergency c-section, giving birth to her daughter, Kennedy. The traumatic birth left Baker exhausted and Kennedy bruised and struggling with low oxygen levels. After a week in the NICU, Kennedy came home, but she stayed on supplemental oxygen for a month.

“I originally planned on sleeping with her,” Baker, 38, says. “I bought a co-sleeper that attaches to the side of the bed. But Kennedy cried non-stop and slept very little. One night, three weeks after she was born, I was exhausted from not sleeping and her crying. So I pulled her into bed with me from the co-sleeper and let her in bed with me. It was the longest stretch of sleep that either of us had gotten and it felt wonderful for both of us.”

In the U.S., controversy about whether or not parents should bed-share with their children continues to simmer decades into the debate. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stresses the risks of and names it the primary factor associated with sleep-related deaths. Consequently, while AAP suggests that infants benefit from sleeping in the same room as their parents, they recommend against all bed-sharing. However, scholars — not to mention cross-cultural norms — indicate that the answer may not be so simple.

University of Notre Dame Professor James McKenna has spent much of his career studying the practice. Bed-sharing, or co-sleeping, can be either safe or dangerous, depending on the circumstances and environment in which it takes place. Therefore, he argues that doctor recommendations should remain mixed and case-specific.

Because sharing a sleeping space, when done right, can do more good than harm. After all, it’s how most humans likely slept throughout our evolutionary past. Research shows that co-sleeping facilitates bonding, eases the breast-feeding process and helps infants develop healthy breathing patterns. These “hidden regulatory processes” may even reduce risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Several countries support the practice far more openly than the U.S., and with success. Japan — where parents tend to sleep beside their babies on mats or futons — has the lowest rates of SIDS in the world. Peruvian health officials have recently begun to promote co-sleeping. In fact, according to McKenna, most cultures practice some form of co-sleeping.

Yet Baker’s pediatrician all but scolded her for her decision. “He called me a rookie parent when he found out,” she says.

Not all American health providers eschew the practice. Raili Neibauer, 41, bed-shared with all three of her children on a doctor’s recommendation. “Our doctor recommended it, especially if it allowed me to get more sleep, and the babies more sleep,” she explains.

While co-sleeping won’t be appropriate for all parents, Hillary Melchiors, a doula and medical anthropologist, tailors her recommendations to individual needs and circumstances. “I tell my clients to do what they feel is best and be safe about it,” she says. “Mostly, bed on the floor, blankets kept away from the baby and no drinking or drugging!”

Tags:  Co-sleeping Infant Sleep Sleep safety sleep science

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