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Co-sleeping and bed-sharing: Is it a good idea?

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Every mom loves to snuggle up with her child, but is sleeping next to your kid or in the same bed a good thing? There are benefits to sharing a bed – but major risks as well.

The terms, defined

Co-sleeping and bed-sharing are two terms that are often used interchangeably – yet they’re not the same.  Co-sleeping actually refers to sleeping next to or in the same room as a child, while bed-sharing means sleeping on the same surface, such as a bed, sofa, or chair.

And although bed-sharing happens in many other cultures around the world, the practice has garnered a lot of criticism in the United States lately.

Take Jennifer Zinzi of Bethel, Conn., who is strongly opposed to bed-sharing. She believes her 1-year-old son and almost 2-year-old daughter should be in their own beds, because it’s safer and more comfortable. “I think the parents’ bed is a personal space,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s an area of the home that needs to be regularly shared with children.”

Co-sleeping has benefits

“If you were a baby, where would you want to sleep?” asked Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician and author of over 40 books on childcare who coined the term attachment parenting.  “In a crib alone in a dark room behind bars or nestled close to your favorite person in the whole world, secure, warm and right there?”

Approximately 50 percent of parents in the United States share a bed with their children, and moms who do find breastfeeding easier, have an increased milk supply, and they sometimes are more likely to breastfeed longer, according to a study in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Chrystal Johnson, founder of the blog Happy Mothering shared a bed with her daughters when they were babies until recently (they’re now 5 and 3). “It allowed me to be much more in tune with my babies’ needs,” Johnson said.

It helped their entire family sleep better too, and Johnson believes it even eliminated bedtime battles when her kids decided to sleep in their own beds. “They’ve always known that they can sleep where they feel safe,” she said.  

“Babies have an inborn need to be touched and held,” said Dr. Susan Markel, a pediatrician and author of What Your Pediatrician Doesn’t Know Can Hurt Your Child. “They enjoy having physical closeness day and night, and this kind of connection is essential to meet a baby’s needs for warmth, comfort and security.”

Newborns who sleep apart from their mothers don’t sleep as well and are under more stress than those who bed-share, a recent study in the journal Biological Psychiatry showed. “Baby’s physiology is more stable when they sleep securely close to mom,” Sears said.

Professor James J. McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame and the world’s leading authority on co-sleeping, found that moms who bed-shared aroused 30 percent more frequently so if the baby were to stop breathing, “mothers are going to sense something is going on,” Sears said.

Although Sears believes in co-sleeping and bed-sharing, he said it’s “mom knows best” when it comes to deciding where and how close her baby should sleep.  

The SIDS Risk

“Every time I see a friend on Facebook that is taking a baby into bed, I just cringe,” said Mary Fischer, founder of the blog The Mommyologist and writer for The Stir at Cafémom.com. “There are just so many things that can go wrong especially with a small baby.”

Fischer’s concerns are not unfounded. Approximately 2,000 babies die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome each year, and a recent study in the British Medical Journal Open showed that babies who bed-share are five times more likely to die of SIDS, even if the mom is breastfeeding and has not been smoking, drinking or taking illegal drugs.

Another recent study in the American Journal of Public Health found 64 percent of babies who died of SIDS were sharing a sleep surface and nearly half were with an adult.

“Adult mattresses don’t have to meet safety standards,” said Dr. Rachel Y. Moon, a pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C. and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics task force on SIDS.  She said a soft mattress with pillows, sheets and blankets can suffocate an infant.

When sharing a bed, a parent or another child can roll over the baby or the baby could slip off the bed, slide in between the headboard, footboard, wall or nightstand. Bed-sharing can also cause a baby to overheat. “The more people you have in the bed, the hotter it gets,” Moon said.  

The risk of SIDS is even higher if a parent has been drinking, has taken prescription or illegal drugs or is a smoker. One of the protective measures against SIDS is frequent waking, yet babies who are exposed to smoke do not get enough oxygen which causes them to sleep longer, Moon said.  

Yet Sears notes that the lowest incidences of SIDS are in cultures who bed-share. And in his research, McKenna suggests that the low risk of SIDS is due to the fact that mothers who bed-share also breastfeed and do not smoke. When certain precautions are taken, he said, it can be done safely.

Bed-sharing shouldn’t be practiced if one or both parents are obese, under the influence, or smoke. Plus, babies should be placed on their backs, on a firm mattress—not on a pillow—and without extra bedding. Moms should always sleep on the same side as her baby.  

Is it bad for development?

Critics of co-sleeping and bed-sharing believe children grow up to be insecure and more reliant on their parents. “I think it teaches kids that they almost need that constant contact and interaction in order to feel that safety, security and confidence in themselves,” Zinzi said.

Yet studies show quite the opposite.  In fact, babies and toddlers who bed-share are less likely to have behavioral problems, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics.

Although Fischer was adamant against co-sleeping and bed-sharing with her son when he was an infant, she started two years ago when he was 5, as a treat when her husband traveled. “I feel like this is the last bit of little kid I’m going to get,” she said.  And although her son probably likes the feeling of security, no one’s getting a good night’s sleep. “We definitely need to nip this in the bud.”

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.