A Practical Guide to the Basics of Co-Sleeping

Tips to Help You Decide if Co-Sleeping is Right for Your Family

mother and baby sleeping
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The family bed, co-sleeping, shared sleep – no matter what you call it, it means that your baby sleeps with you, or very close to you, rather than in a separate room or nursery. Co-sleeping is becoming a hot topic in the parenting world, and like maybe parenting topics, people have some very strong opinions about it both for against it. After researching the "whys" of co-sleeping, here are the practical tips and information every parent should know about shared sleep before deciding if it is for their family.

The Basics of Co-Sleeping

Shared sleep is arguably most popular with parents (particularly nursing mothers) of young babies who wake throughout the night, since it allows parents to avoid getting up out of bed and traveling up and down a dark hallway to tend to their little one. Co-sleeping is popular also with parents of older babies who enjoy the nighttime closeness with their child. Though the views and theories behind co-sleeping remain relatively constant across families who choose to incorporate it into their lifestyle, how they choose to approach co-sleeping varies tremendously.  

Co-Sleeping and Family Bed Styles

Traditionally, the term co-sleeping was considered synonymous with the shared family bed (the first on our list of co-sleeping styles), but most parenting experts and pediatricians have expressed that this definition is simply too narrow. The definition has since been expanded by many to include a range of co-sleeping styles that generally keep parents and children within arm's reach of one another.

Today, there are practically as many different styles of family beds as there are families! Here are a few of the most typical co-sleeping arrangements:

  • The Family Bed: Parents and baby sleep together in one bed -- usually using a king-sized mattress.
  • Side-by-Side: The child sleeps on a separate mattress or futon on the floor next to the parents' bed.
  • Sidecar: A cradle or crib is nestled adjacent to the parent's bed, sometimes with one side of the crib removed.
  • Shared Room: The baby and parents have separate beds in the same room.

Approaches to Co-Sleep

The use of these co-sleeping arrangements varies from home to home as well. Some of the common approaches to co-sleeping are:

  • Shared sleep with the baby during the night and for naps. This approach follows the common new parent advice of "sleep when the baby sleeps" with a co-sleeping twist.
  • Part-time shared sleep for either naps or nighttime only, or some of both, with baby in a crib, cradle, or other place for other sleep times.
  • Dual beds are a common setup in which a parent (most commonly a nursing mother) has one place where he or she sleeps with the baby and another where he or she sleeps with a partner. The parent may move back and forth between beds based on how often the baby wakes during the night and how tired he or she is on any given night.
  • Musical beds are also a common arrangement. There are several beds in different rooms, and parents and baby shift from place to place depending on each evening's situation.
  • Occasional family bed is when the baby has his or her own crib or bed but is welcomed into the parents' bed whenever he or she has a bad dream, feels sick, or just needs some extra cuddle time.
  • Sibling bed is often a natural followup to the family bed. Older children may share sleep with their sibling(s) after they outgrow the need for their parents' bed or the sidecar arrangement.

How to Decide If Co-Sleeping is Right For Your Family

Every family has different nighttime needs. In spite of the various strong opinions people hold about family sleeping arrangements, there is no single best arrangement that works for all babies and parents. Even within a family, there may be several "right" options to choose from. The key is to find the safest solution that feels right to everyone in your family.

It's very important to eliminate your need or desire to satisfy anyone else's perception of what you should be doing. In other words, no matter what your in-laws, your neighbors, your pediatrician, or your favorite author says about sleeping arrangements, the only "right" answer is the one that works for the people living in your home keeping everyone happy, healthy, and safe.

Making Co-Sleeping Safe

One of the primary criticisms of co-sleeping arrangements - particularly the family bed approach - is that they can be unsafe for your child. Proponents of co-sleeping, however, stress that when safety guidelines are strictly adhered to, co-sleeping can not only be safe but mutually beneficial for both parent and child.

If you decide to have your baby share sleep with you or your partner either for naps or at nighttime, you should adhere to the following safety guidelines:

  • Your bed must be absolutely safe for your baby. The best choice is to place the mattress on the floor, making sure there are no crevices that your baby can become wedged in. Make certain your mattress is flat, firm, and smooth. Do not allow your baby to sleep on a soft surface such as a waterbed, sofa, pillow-top mattress, or any other flexible surface.
  • Make certain that your fitted sheets stay secure and cannot be pulled loose.
  • If your bed is raised off the floor, use mesh guardrails to prevent Baby from rolling off the bed and be especially careful that there is no space between the mattress and headboard or footboard. (You should note that even some guardrails designed for older children are not safe for babies because they have spaces that could entrap babies).
  • If your bed is placed against a wall or other furniture, check every night to be sure there is no space between the mattress and wall or furniture where baby could become stuck.
  • Infants should be placed between their mother and the wall or guardrail. Fathers, siblings, and grandparents don't have the same instinctual awareness of a baby's location as mothers do. Mothers, your little one should be able to awaken you with a minimum of movement or noise. If you find that you are such a deep sleeper that you only wake when your baby lets out a loud cry, you should seriously consider moving Baby out of your bed, perhaps into a cradle or crib near your bedside.
  • Use a large mattress to provide ample room for everyone's movement. Most experts recommend the use a king-sized mattress.
  • If sharing your bed feels too risky or unmanageable, consider a sidecar arrangement in which Baby's crib or cradle sits directly beside the main bed.
  • Make certain that the room your baby sleeps in, and any room he might have access to, is child-safe. Imagine your baby crawling out of bed to explore the house as you sleep. Even if he has not done this -- yet -- you can be certain he eventually will!
  • Do not ever sleep with your baby if you have been drinking alcohol, have used any drugs or medications, are an especially sound sleeper, or if you are suffering from sleep deprivation and find it difficult to awaken.
  • Do not sleep with your baby if you are a large person, as a parent’s excess weight has been determined to pose a risk to baby in a co-sleeping situation. While I cannot give you a specific parent's weight to baby ratio, examine how you and Baby settle in next to each other. If Baby rolls towards you, if there is a large dip in the mattress, or if you suspect any other dangerous situations, play it safe and move Baby to a bedside crib or cradle.
  • Remove all pillows and blankets during the early months. Use extreme caution when adding pillows or blankets as your baby gets older. Dress Baby and yourselves warmly. A tip for breastfeeding moms: try wearing an old turtleneck or t-shirt, cut up the middle to the neckline, as an undershirt for extra warmth. Keep in mind that body heat will add warmth during the night. Make sure your baby doesn't become overheated.
  • Do not wear any night-clothes with strings or long ribbons. Don't wear jewelry to bed, and if your hair is long, put it up.
  • Don't use strong perfumes or lotions that may affect your baby's delicate senses.
  • Do not allow pets to sleep in bed with your baby.
  • Never leave your baby alone in an adult bed unless it is perfectly safe. For example, placing baby on a mattress on the floor in a childproof room, when you are nearby or listening in with a reliable baby monitor.
  • Make sure that your young baby is sleeping on his or her back which is the safest position for sleep.

As of the now, there are no proven safety devices for use in protecting a baby in an adult bed. However, as a result of the great number of parents who wish to sleep safely with their babies, a number of new products are beginning to appear in baby catalogs and stores. You may want to look into some of these new nests, wedges, and cradles for your co-sleeping arrangement.

When to Make Changes to Sleep Arrangements

Sleeping situations tend to go through a transformation process throughout the early years of a baby's life. Some families make a conscious decision to co-sleep with their babies until they feel that their children are ready for independent sleeping. Some families make modifications as their babies begin to sleep better at night. Other families move their babies to cribs to accommodate a need for private sleep. The best advice is to go with the flow and make adjustments according to what works best for you and your family.

Learn more about Elizabeth Pantley, mother, author, speaker and parenting expert.

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