Sharing Sleep with Your Baby

A Safe Family Bed

Mother and baby sleeping in bed
Photo © Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

Throughout the years a baby sleeping in your bed was the norm. In Western culture, this changed and more and more newborns were placed in cribs to sleep away from their parents. Though the family bed, or co-sleeping, is still the cultural norm in other parts of the world, it is not something that is seen as a normal practice in the United States, despite the fact that many families choose some form of co-sleeping for themselves.

Dr. James McKenna estimates that at least half of US families sleep with their baby all or part of the night.

What is Co-Sleeping?

Co-sleeping is called by many names:  family bed, sharing sleep, etc. It generally means that a baby sleep with the parents in a parent's bed. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) prefers the term bed sharing. While they do not recommend that an infant sleeps in an adult bed, they have stated that if a mother is breastfeeding, she should bring her baby to bed rather than a couch or chair, in case she accidentally falls asleep. They believe that is safer and allows the parents to prepare the bed safely. The AAP does believe that an infant under the age of six months should be in the same room with the parents. So co-sleeping can be a baby in the parents' bed, a baby in a co-sleeper attached to the parent's bed, or the baby can be in a crib or bassinette in the same room as the parents.

Why co-sleep?

Proponents of the family bed point to the benefits. They say that they sleep longer and better when they sleep with their babies. Those mothers who breastfeed say that sharing their bed with their newborn or older baby makes breastfeeding much easier and in turn the get more sleep. There are also some physicians who say that sharing a bed with your baby can also protect him or her against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Generally, the benefits of co-sleeping relate to longer term breastfeeding and more sleep for the parents.

The Risks of Co-Sleeping

There are risks to co-sleeping, just as there are things that make sleeping elsewhere, such as a crib, risky. The important thing is to figure out the best place for your baby to sleep and to do it safely. You should not sleep with your baby if:

  • You have been drinking alcohol 
  • You have been taking drugs, pain medication, etc.
  • You smoke
  • You have other children in the bed
  • You sleep with your pets
  • You are sleeping on a water bed
  • You are sleeping on a couch
  • You  are sleeping on a chair or recliner
  • You are overtired

All of these things make co-sleeping a bad idea. Just as there are safety rules with crib use, there are also safety rules with co-sleeping.

More Rules for Co-Sleeping Families

Here are some additional things to remember when co-sleeping to do so safely:

  • Your baby should be on their back for sleep
  • The mattress should be firm and clean
  • An adult should always be able to see the baby
  • No fluffy blankets, stuffed animals, quilts, pillows
  • Dress your baby in a one-piece to avoid overheating

The bottom line is that if you choose to sleep with your baby in your bed for any amount of time, you need to follow safe bedding practices. The first thing is where you sleep. You should never sleep on the couch or on a waterbed with your baby. Your bed mattress should be firm, flat and clean. You should avoid overheating for your baby, dress them lightly when they sleep with you and do not use huge blankets to cover them. Sheets and light blankets are usually sufficient to keep you and your baby warm. It is best to face your baby when you sleep with him or her, this prevents your baby from falling out of bed or falling between the bed and the wall. Be sure your partner knows that the baby is in your bed. It is probably better to not have pets also sharing your bed.

Sleeping with your baby is a personal choice. It should be made with your family's needs in mind and not the opinions of others. Try what works for your family and alter the arrangements safely until you find where everyone gets the most sleep. Remember you may also choose to sleep with your baby part of the night - the safety rules still apply.


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