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Co-Sleeping: The Pros & Cons

Written by James Kicinski-McCoy

Photography by Photo via Fotolia

Although common in many cultures around the world, the practice of co-sleeping (bed sharing with your infant, baby, or toddler, a.k.a. creating a “family bed”) is still controversial in the United States. Which is reason enough for it to be a hot topic we want to discuss with our readers.

Supporters of co-sleeping suggest that the parents’ bed is where infants belong and many health professionals agree that bed sharing promotes healthy breastfeeding habits and a stronger bond between parent and child. On the flip side, many child development experts fear that co-sleeping is unsafe and should be practiced with great caution.

Which side do we fall on? Honestly, both editors of Mother have practiced co-sleeping, either out of choice or necessity (i.e. the child would not sleep away from his mother’s chest the first three months of life…yikes!). In that respect, it’s been comforting to see studies bubble up supporting the practice.

Research published by James J. McKenna Ph.D. and Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Chair in Anthropology sets up the pro-co-sleeping argument quite nicely:

Unfortunately, the terms co-sleeping, bed sharing, and a well-known dangerous form of co-sleeping, couch or sofa co-sleeping, are mostly used interchangeably by medical authorities, even though these terms need to be kept separate. It is absolutely wrong to say, for example, that “co-sleeping is dangerous” when room sharing is a form of co-sleeping and this form of co-sleeping (as at least three epidemiological studies show) reduce an infant’s chances of dying by one half.

Bed sharing is another form of co-sleeping, which can be made either safe or unsafe, but it is not intrinsically one nor the other. Couch or sofa co-sleeping is, however, intrinsically dangerous as babies can and do all too easily get pushed against the back of the couch by the adult, or flipped face down in the pillows, to suffocate.

They go on to argue that safe co-sleeping has great benefits and share research from several studies of cultures outside of the U.S. that practice co-sleeping:

In Japan where co-sleeping and breastfeeding (in the absence of maternal smoking) is the cultural norm, rates of the sudden infant death syndrome are the lowest in the world. For breastfeeding mothers, bed sharing makes breastfeeding much easier to manage and practically doubles the amount of breastfeeding sessions while permitting both mothers and infants to spend more time asleep. The increased exposure to mother’s antibodies, which comes with more frequent nighttime breastfeeding, can potentially, per any given infant, reduce infant illness. And because co-sleeping in the form of bed sharing makes breastfeeding easier for mothers, it encourages them to breastfeed for a greater number of months, according to Dr. Helen Ball’s studies at the University of Durham, therein potentially reducing the mother’s chances of breast cancer.

That the highest rates of bed sharing worldwide occur alongside the lowest rates of infant mortality, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) rates, is a point worth returning to… It suggests that whether or not babies should bed share and what the outcome will be may depend on who is involved, under what condition it occurs, how it is practiced, and the quality of the relationship brought to the bed to share. This is not the answer some medical authorities are looking for, but it certainly resonates with parents, and it is substantiated by scores of studies. 

All of that said, there are many pros and cons to co-sleeping. Here are some of them:

Some reported pros*:

  • Co-sleeping enhances an emotional attachment between parent and child.
  • Co-sleeping makes nighttime breastfeeding more convenient.
  • Co-sleeping makes it easier to soothe an infant back to sleep in the middle of the night.
  • Studies suggest the mother’s sleep becomes more in sync with her infant’s sleep. Co-sleeping mothers often awaken just before their babies start to cry for a feeding and can nurse them back to sleep before they both fully awaken.
  • Co-sleeping is believed to enhance breastfeeding. A recent study showed that co-sleeping infants nursed up to twice as often as infants who sleep separately.
  • Prolactin (milk producing hormone) levels are increased with increased nighttime breastfeeding.
  • Some parents find they sleep better when they co-sleep because they aren’t waking to check on or worrying about their child.
  • The proximity of a parent may help an infant’s immature nervous system learn to self-regulate during sleep. Sleeping with a familiar person may smooth the transition from one sleep state to another and lessen an infant’s anxiety.
  • Co-sleeping may help to prevent SIDS by preventing an infant from entering into sleep states that are too deep. In addition, the parent’s own breathing may help the infant to ‘remember’ to breathe.

Some reported cons*:

  • Evidence to support those claims regarding the emotional and psychological benefits of co-sleeping has not been scientifically documented. There is no scientific evidence that confirms co-sleeping enhances a better (or worse) emotional attachment than children who sleep separately from their parents.
  • Where some may see the increased frequency of nighttime feeding beneficial, others believe feeding a child to sleep during the night may extend beyond an age where overnight feeding fulfills a nutritional need.
  • Co-sleeping can lead to what some parents perceive as very dependent and demanding sleep behavior at night.
  • A child who requires full parental involvement for nighttime sleep often requires full parental involvement for daytime sleep as well.
  • Some parents find their quality of sleep is effected by co-sleeping. For example, co-sleeping with an infant may prevent parents from getting a good night’s sleep (and full range of motion) for fear of rolling onto their infant. The parents’ bedtimes might be dictated by the child’s bedtime. Also, the restless movements of an older child during sleep often makes co-sleeping unacceptable to many parents.
  • The average age a child will stay in the ‘family bed’ is 3-4 years. (Some leave sooner, some will stay to 5 years or older.)
  • The connection between co-sleeping and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is unclear and research is ongoing. An American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement says that although co-sleeping may have benefits (such as promoting breastfeeding) there are no scientific studies suggesting that it reduces SIDS. In fact, the opposite may be true. The AAP says that some studies suggest that under certain conditions co-sleeping may increase the risk of SIDS.

*Sources: neuroanthropology.net, kidshealth.org, cosleeping.org, babycareadvice.com.

The end point here? Whichever sleeping arrangement you choose, it is essential to educate yourself, weigh both the benefits and the risks, and make your child’s sleeping environment as safe as possible. (For those of you going the co-sleeping route, you can read James J. McKenna and Edmund P. Joyce ‘s book, Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide To Co-Sleeping, quoted above.)

Do you think co-sleeping (or perhaps more accurately bed sharing) is a good idea? Let’s keep the discussion going in the comment section below.

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