Co-Sleeping 101- The Ultimate Guidebook
Changing diapers, pacifying a crying baby, tracking first solid food, all milestones to take note of – these are just some of the things a would-be parent would love to learn more about. Maybe you’ve also wondered if sleeping in the same room or bed with your child is safe and healthy?
If so, you are not alone. Nothing is more fulfilling for a parent than to keep their newborn close. But co-sleeping is a practice mired in controversy, with parents taking strong opposing views.
Some are against co-sleeping, even speculating that practice can lead to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
SIDS is one of our worst nightmares as parents. The thought of waking up in the morning to find out that your baby is not breathing is enough to keep any parent sleepless. If you buy into the propaganda that co-sleeping increases the risk of SIDS, you’d shun the thought of sleeping alongside your baby.
In the other corner, however, are people who support co-sleeping and tout its long list of developmental and health benefits. Supporters would say that people who oppose co-sleeping are arguing against millions if not billions of years of evolution. That babies and children have an evolved need to be close to their protectors when they’re sleeping.
What we aim to do in Co-Sleeping 101: The Ultimate Guide, is to dispell all the myths and misconceptions, educate you on the science-backed benefits of co-sleeping, and give you tips on how to co-sleep safely. While co-sleeping is ideal, there are legitimate reasons why some parents just can’t or shouldn’t co-sleep with their children. We’ll cover those in this article.
So let’s dig in!
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS CO-SLEEPING?
Co-Sleeping is a practice in which babies and young children sleep close to one or both parents, as opposed to in a separate room. Co-sleeping has many forms and we’ll take a look at each one in this section:
- Bed-Sharing: As the term suggests, in this setup the child sleeps in the same bed or on the same surface as their parents. Bed-sharing is often a target of severe criticism, and we will take a closer (and objective) look at this form of co-sleeping.
- Different Beds But In The Same Room: The baby may sleep on a different surface, like in a crib, while in the same room. This setup makes nursing and checking on baby (from time to time) a cinch.
- Sidecar Arrangement: This form of co-sleeping involves securely attaching a crib or small bed next to the bed. The three sides of the crib are intact while the side next to the parents’ bed is either lowered or removed.
- Child Being Allowed To Sleep In Parents’ Bed As Needed: This approach to co-sleeping is common for toddlers who usually sleep in a separate room. The young ones may be allowed to spend the rest of the night with their parents, especially after a night-waking (such as from a bad dream).
5 MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CO-SLEEPING DEBUNKED
Co-sleeping is a common practice around the world, even more so in Asian countries than in the West. Yet despite its prevalence, co-sleeping has received a stamp of stern disapproval, turning away parents from the practice. But does co-sleeping deserve the terrible reputation it has earned? Read on as we try to answer that question.
MYTH 1: CO-SLEEPING IS DANGEROUS, ESPECIALLY FOR INFANTS
This myth about co-sleeping is perhaps the most prevalent of all. Many have protested that co-sleeping causes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). One study carried out by the American Academy of Pediatrics and published back in July of 2014 even supported the claim. Even the US Consumer Products Safety Commission has jumped on the anti-co-sleeping train!
The Truth: The American Academy of Pediatrics released a second study and press release in 2016. In this release, the AAP updated its stance on co-sleeping and even recommended that infants sleep in the same room as their parents to reduce the risk of SIDS.
To be fair, the AAP highlighted that while babies should sleep near or alongside their parents, they should stay on a separate surface like in bassinet or a sidecar setup (for safety reasons).
As you will learn later, however, having your baby sleep on the same surface or bed you’re in can be safe, if you follow the recommended practices and safety guidelines.
Bottom line: Concrete scientific evidence which links co-sleeping to SIDS is yet to be uncovered. More recent studies show co-sleeping in a more positive light. If SIDS risk is your primary concern about co-sleeping, you can put your mind at ease because there has yet to be concrete scientific proof.
MYTH 2: CO-SLEEPING BABIES GROW INTO SPOILED BRATS
Parenting.com’s national sleeping habits survey saw 39% of the 6,000 respondents believe that co-sleeping parents are spoiling their child. Many co-sleeping critics think that parents who let their child sleep alongside them in bed are only making life harder for the little ones.
The Truth: Co-sleeping doesn’t spoil a child, according to a study by researchers from the Stony Brook University School of Medicine. The study involved looking at and surveying the sleeping habits of 944 low-income families for several years.
After assessing the cognitive and behavioral development of the kids after reaching 5 years of age, the researchers concluded that co-sleeping during the toddler years does not negatively affect development by the age of 5.
MYTH 3: CO-SLEEPING KILLS THE ROMANCE BETWEEN HUSBAND AND WIFE
Critics of co-sleeping point to this misconception as one of the biggest disadvantages of letting your child sleep in your bed. On the surface, the argument makes perfect sense. Getting intimate and having sex with your partner becomes tougher with the baby around.
The Truth: Professor James McKenna, a professor at the University of Notre Dame (and the world’s leading authority on a mother-baby sleeping relationship), thinks otherwise.
“Where you decide to let your baby sleep isn’t the sole reason for the dissolution of your marriage or the reason you and your partner are no longer intimate,” he says.
“Anyone who blames the failings of marriage on their child being in bed with them is not dealing with the bigger issues. There is also no data to support the idea that baby co-sleeping will do this. Co-sleeping is an agreement you make before baby comes.”
– Prof. James McKenna
If anything, co-sleeping forces parents to be more creative in finding ways to be intimate with each other. As any loving husband and wife will tell you, creativity in intimacy can be great for your relationship.
MYTH 4: CO-SLEEPING CAUSES A CHILD TO GROW TOO DEPENDENT ON THEIR PARENTS
Our western (and particularly American) society values independence – a lot. Today’s businesses let their staff work however and whenever they like, while 18-year olds are sent to university dorms because we want them to stand their ground and make decisions for themselves. Having a child sleep on the same bed as you do seems to go against these values. Or does it?
The Truth: Clinginess isn’t a trait we want our kids to be known for. Clinginess is also a tough habit to break. However, McKenna and his research suggest that babies who co-sleep often grow to be less fearful and more independent than their non-co-sleeping counterparts.
A child can become self-sufficient. What helps self-sufficiency is if a child receives the support and foundation they need at an early age. Co-sleeping helps to provide just that!
MYTH 5: CO-SLEEPING PARENTS ARE IRRESPONSIBLE
If you have fallen for the misconceptions, concluding that co-sleeping parents are irresponsible is only natural. However, if you look beyond the imprecise science and unfounded warnings against the practice, you will find that co-sleeping parents are anything but irresponsible.
The Truth: Make no mistake. Co-sleeping done wrong can pose life-threatening risks to your infant. But by following the best practices and safety guidelines, co-sleeping can prove to be one of the most sensible things you can do for your child’s well-being.
THE 5 BIGGEST SCIENCE-BACKED BENEFITS OF CO-SLEEPING
We’ve just debunked some of the biggest myths about co-sleeping. We’ve even established that the practice is 100% safe when done right. Do co-sleeping’s perks also go beyond being safe? There are science-backed benefits of co-sleeping that parents should know, to be of most benefit to themselves and their children.
1. NURSING BECOMES EASIER
With your baby in close proximity, reaching out to nurse only gets easier. Parents, especially moms, need all the help they can get as babies to need soothing and feeding (especially at night).
Just imagine… Mom wakes up to the sound of a baby screaming. She pulls herself out of bed, causing the bed to move and waking her partner. She stumbles to the baby’s room half-asleep, potentially tripping over a toy or hazard along the way. Not only is this frustrating and draining for the mother, but it also increases the risk of injury, decreases the quality of everyone’s sleep, and increases the stress levels in everyone’s lives.
In addition, co-sleeping aids in maintaining an adequate milk supply. Because breastfeeding follows a supply-and-demand process.
When a mom is able to frequently and quickly nurse her hungry baby, her body is better primed to produce more milk when needed.
Finally, co-sleeping helps ensure breastfeeding mothers get enough sleep, too. With the baby on the same surface, as she is, mom doesn’t have to fully awaken to nurse.
2. BETTER SLEEP AND PHYSIOLOGY
Prolonged crying can be harmful (not just to babies but to the entire family). Imagine a house with a mom, a dad, child #1, and a crying baby. How many people are getting a good night’s sleep with a baby crying out every few hours (or more often)?
Crying is a signal that’s meant to communicate to parents, ensuring that the baby receives timely and proper care. If not attended to quickly, crying can awaken the baby more than necessary, which gets in the way of rest.
With co-sleeping, however, babies fall into a stage of sleep where they’re conscious enough to feed but are not fully awake. In simpler words, co-sleeping can help babies feed while still getting enough rest for healthy growth and development.
Furthermore, being able to meet the baby’s needs in a timely manner means the little one – and the rest of the family – can go back to sleep and be better recharged for the next day.
3. CO-SLEEPING CAN EVEN DECREASE THE RISK OF SIDS
It’s true that irresponsible co-sleeping can lead to accidents and even deaths, with suffocation and strangulation topping the list of potential dangers.
An infant on a water-bed is likely to end up in a curled position, which makes breathing harder. A parent under the influence of alcohol or drugs may accidentally put their weight onto the child and cause suffocation.
These are examples of people not knowing, or being irresponsible, in the ways they go about co-sleeping.
But as Professor McKenna said:
“By sleeping next to the baby, the mother is able to promote baby’s breathing stability. There is no scientific validation that says co-sleeping is bad. Accidents, of course, happen, and there are risk factors, as with everything.”
When done right, co-sleeping helps an infant rouse himself. Research has shown that babies are frequently aroused when sleeping next to their moms. They don’t fully awake but stay in REM sleep, the state in which protective arousal is most likely to occur.
Rousing helps babies learn to use their self-preservation instincts when there’s any danger. Overheating, feeling too cold, or if there’s something blocking their airways are some of the factors that contribute to SIDS.
And if the protective mechanism doesn’t go off for some reason, co-sleeping parents are in a prime position to save their babies from life-threatening dangers in a moment’s notice.
4. CO-SLEEPING HELPS IMPROVE VITAL SIGNS
Scientific studies have shown that for adults in a coma state, the presence of someone else in their room plays a big factor in their recovery. Having someone else present helps patients to improve their heart rate and rhythmic breathing, as well as their blood pressure. It’s not surprising that babies get the same health benefits when sleeping alongside their parents.
Co-sleeping helps the infant’s not yet developed nervous system learn to self-regulate during rest. The parent’s close proximity and breathing also remind infants to breathe.
One of the leading causes of infant death is when an infant doesn’t breathe at a normal rate when asleep. The root cause of this strange phenomenon remains unknown, but much of the risk can be avoided by simply staying close.
5. BETTER EMOTIONAL HEALTH IN THE LONG RUN
Co-sleeping nurtures attachment because the closeness between mom and baby helps to release the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin. This secure attachment leaves babies with feelings of being loved and cared for.
Many factors contribute to the emotional well-being of infants. However, knowing that their parents love and care for them is high on the list. During the first six months of life, nothing else is more reassuring to your child than to know that you’re within an arm’s reach, whenever he or she is hungry, wet, tired, or uncomfortable.
Co-sleeping also helps you get plenty of “face time” and skin-to-skin contact with your little one (while they’re still young).
CO-SLEEPING WITH A NEWBORN – STEP-BY-STEP
You’ve seen the perks of co-sleeping. Perhaps you’re already excited to know the exact steps. We’ll get to that in a bit. But before we do, we need to look at certain guidelines you must follow to make co-sleeping work for you, your baby, and the rest of the family.
Note that co-sleeping is a decision that needs to be done by all parties involved, including your partner. Talk with your partner or significant other ahead of time and keep the following reminders in mind.
BABY SHOULD BE BREASTFED AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
First things first: nothing is wrong with formula-feeding. Sure, formula milk isn’t as nutritious as breast milk but formula has proven to be a blessing, especially for moms who can’t breastfeed due to work schedules, being unable to pump, or physiological reasons (ex: mom can’t produce enough milk).
On the other hand, the awesome health benefits of breastfeeding, along with co-sleeping, are too good to ignore. For starters, breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS by as much as 50%, at all ages throughout infancy.
Here are just some of the benefits of breastfeeding in relation to SIDS:
- Fights Infections: Respiratory and gastrointestinal infections increase an infant’s risk of SIDS. Breast milk shields infants from RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) infections, especially between 2 to 6 months (when babies’ immune systems are at their weakest).
- Better Brain Development For The Little Ones: Since the 1990s, experts have agreed that breastfed babies have an intellectual advantage. However, this has been attributed to the nurturing character of the mother, rather than the milk itself. More recent research has revealed that the milk itself can lead to an IQ gain of up to 8.3 points.
- Increases Mother’s Awareness: According to leading expert Dr. William Sears, “Breastfeeding is a practice in baby reading.” This baby reading practice fine-tunes a mother’s sensitivity, so much so that one mom can tell if her baby is having an ear infection, by the way, her child nurses. This heightened sensitivity is invaluable in giving mom an additional alert for preventing SIDS and other life-threatening risks.
BOTH PARENTS SHOULD BE SOBER AND NON-SMOKERS
Steer clear of alcohol and cigarettes long before the baby arrives. Alcohol and drugs may affect your or your partner’s memory.
The worst thing that could possibly happen is you or your partner forgetting that your baby is in your bed or on the sofa with you. If you’ve had too much to drink, you may sleep so soundly that you’re unaware you’ve rolled onto your baby or that your baby has become trapped.
For this same reason, experts suggest you also shouldn’t co-sleep when you feel extremely tired.
MOM SHOULD STAY BETWEEN THE BABY AND HER PARTNER
This is something that you and your partner have to consider for yourselves. The following questions should help you decide if, in addition to Mom, your partner is a safe co-sleeping companion:
- Does your partner sleepwalk?
- Does your partner act out dreams?
- Does your partner routinely roll around when sleeping?
If the answer to even one of the questions is yes, co-sleeping with the partner and the mom is inadvisable. Most of the time, people who sleepwalk are seen in a comical light, but a sleepwalking partner is not a good person to have in the same bed for co-sleeping.
Waking up in the morning to find out that your partner has rolled over your precious one is not an experience anyone wants to have.
USE A FIRM SLEEPING SURFACE
A soft or sagging mattress translates to a higher risk of your baby suffocating or overheating. If your bed has a frame, a headboard, or is against a wall, make sure the mattress fits snugly.
Remove the possibility that there will be gaps that your baby could fall into. Co-sleeping on a waterbed, air bed, bean bag, or any other saggy surface is a bad idea… These surfaces are all too soft, and waterbeds may have deep crevices around the frame where your baby could get trapped.
Having a firm sleeping surface also prevents babies from rolling over to their side when sleeping. It is highly recommended that babies, from birth until their first year, sleep on their backs. In the event that your baby still rolls over during his sleep, a firm sleeping surface allows him to roll back with less effort.
DRESS THE BABY INAPPROPRIATE CLOTHING
Dress your baby in sleepwear that’s not only safe and comfy but also helps regulate body temperature.
Many believe that you should go for flame-resistant materials. While this can make sense (depending on the materials you select), you shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as far as sleepwear choices are concerned.
Soft, breathable, and natural fabrics like cotton work just fine. However, be sure that they fit snugly. U.S. law states (as of June 2000) that children’s sleepwear must be labeled as either snug-fitting (so it won’t easily catch fire) or flame resistant.
Ribbons, strings, ties, and other decorative items should be avoided. These things pose a risk to your baby. Items like these can get wrapped around your baby. This can become a choking hazard.
If you decide to swaddle your baby during sleep, keep it minimal. It’s also advisable to use lightweight cotton or a muslin wrap. Make sure that the wrap does not cover your baby’s head, ears, or chin. Wraps that cover the face or are wrapped too tightly can obstruct your baby’s breathing and cause overheating.
Also, check that there’s enough room for your baby to stretch his or her legs. The wrap should be at least a little loose around the chest and hips. Wrapping a baby’s legs and chest too tightly can lead to breathing and hip problems.
KEEP BEDDING LIGHT AND MINIMAL
Keep bedding and pillows well away from your baby’s head, as this could smother an infant or lead to overheating. Experts advise using light sheets and blankets, rather than a duvet.
If you do want to use a duvet, choose a light fabric. Keep it well below your baby’s shoulders. There is also such a thing as a baby sleeping bag, which is a possibility you could look into. A well-fitted baby sleeping bag is an alternative that could help if you decide to sleep with a duvet.
Pillows are generally not a good idea either. Letting your baby sleep on a pillow and putting pillows on either side of your baby may cause your baby to roll off or be smothered in the folds of the pillow.
9 STEPS TO SAFE CO-SLEEPING
Now that you have read the must-know guidelines and safety reminders, it’s time to cover the step-by-step portion. Follow the instructions below and you are almost assured that you will have a much safer and more sound sleep with your little one.
1. MAKE SURE THE ENTIRE FAMILY IS ON THE SAME PAGE
Talk this over with your partner, and make a conscious decision to co-sleep responsibly. In some cases, parents don’t intend to co-sleep with the baby but end up doing so. Make sure that you and your partner are on the same page about how to share the bed safely.
You can do this by setting rules ahead of time. For example, no sleeping with the baby if either of the parents have had more than 1 alcoholic drink. Rules should apply not only to you but to your relatives and anyone else who may co-sleep with the baby (including the nanny or babysitter).
2. PUT THE BABY ON HIS/HER BACK
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep on their backs, as this is the safest. This may be related to the possibility of the baby re-breathing carbon dioxide.
As covered previously, one of the major causes of death in infants is suffocation. Ensuring that the baby sleeps on his or her back is one way of avoiding this accident. If you breastfeed while lying down, and your baby is on his side, make sure you return him to his back after he has finished nursing.
3. MAKE A SUITABLE SLEEPING SURFACE
The surface where your baby should be sleeping needs to be firm, with tightly fitted sheets. The blanket needs to be away from the baby’s face to avoid suffocation.
Nothing else should be on the bed with you except for your own pillow and the blanket. That pillow needs to be firm. If you can sleep without a pillow, that’s preferable. Avoid stuffed toys. Teddy bears or anything similar can wait until your baby is older.
4. CHECK THE PERIMETER
As mentioned already, one cause of death in infants sleeping on an adult bed is getting stuck between the mattress and another surface (ex: furniture, wall, headboard). Make sure that there are no gaps around the sleeping surface (where the baby could fall in).
Lie on your side and face your baby, while your body is curled around in a C-shape. Place your lower arm above your baby’s head and draw your knees up under his feet. This position helps to prevent you from rolling forward or backward and keeps pillows away from your baby’s head.
6. AVOID SMOKING, DRINKING, OR TAKING HEAVY MEDICATIONS BEFORE GOING TO BED
Drinking or taking drugs, makes you less responsive, especially at night. Illegal drugs are, of course, out of the question. However, did you know that you should not sleep with your baby if you take some over-the-counter drugs?
Medications such as antihistamines can cause drowsiness and deep sleep. This can pose a threat to you rolling over your baby. So if you or your partner take medications, putting your baby in a crib is your safest bet.
And of course, we already know that smoking, especially the second-hand smoke it creates, is detrimental for one’s health. The risk goes a notch higher with babies who are still developing.
7. SECURE AND BRAID YOUR LONG HAIR
This may sound weird and far-fetched. However, long hair can be a threat to your baby. There have been reports of babies who died (and nearly died) because of the long hair of someone co-sleeping with them.
The reports are few and far between, and the risk of strangling your baby with your own hair may be small. However, staying safe is always better than being sorry. So tie your long hair in a braid or ponytail. You may also consider cutting your hair so that it is shorter.
8. WEAR THE RIGHT CLOTHING
For your own clothing, wear a long-sleeve shirt. Dress your baby in a sleeping outfit that will ensure he/she doesn’t need a blanket. By doing so, you can keep the covers down at your waist level. This can reduce the risk of suffocation while keeping your arms warm, and your baby comfortable.
9. PROP YOURSELF
If you’re breastfeeding while lying down, put your nursing pillow along your backside. In this way, you can be supported while you sleep and your baby eats. Keep the pillow in bed or near the edge of the bed so that you can grab it easily.
This section marks the end of our discussion about co-sleeping, and boy did we discuss a lot!
We’ve looked at (and debunked!) the biggest myths and misconceptions, as well as the biggest science-backed benefits of co-sleeping. Perhaps most importantly, we answered the question: “Is co-sleeping safe?”
The answer, based on existing research and studies, is a resounding YES. But only if co-sleeping is done properly. We’ve looked at how to co-sleep with your child while staying safe.
The debate of whether or not co-sleeping is safe will continue to rage on.
You will likely see more studies come along. However, until such time that science concludes that co-sleeping is indeed detrimental, you have no reason to feel bad about spending the night with your baby right beside you.