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Few people have to deal with as much stress as new parents. Taking care of a baby can be incredibly challenging, as a lot of problems you run into are vague and unclear, leaving you unsure as to what you should do to solve them. You have to make sure the baby gets the healthiest food you can find, comfort it regularly and generally micromanage every aspect of its life. Naturally, there are a lot of pitfalls you can encounter if you’re inexperienced, and some of them can be quite impactful for your child’s health. While consulting a pediatrician is always a good idea, it pays to seek out knowledge about various parenting methods and safety practices online.
Co-sleeping is a topic many parents approach with caution and fear, as it comes with potential downsides that have to be worked around. However, when done correctly, it offers very desirable benefits that help your child develop properly, and stay healthy. In this article, we will examine co-sleeping as a whole and offer advice on how you can organize your sleeping environment to support your child’s development, which also helps parents minimize stress and get better rest themselves. Let’s get right into it.
What Is Co-Sleeping and How Does It Work?
Co-sleeping is the act of sharing your bedroom (or your bed itself) with your child. The primary purpose of co-sleeping is to allow the child and parent (typically the mother) to feel each other’s presence in the room, which allows both of them to sleep easier (especially the child). It is a practice as old as time and considered one of the earliest parenting techniques since our inception as a species. One of the main reasons to implement co-sleeping is that it lets the parents respond to the child’s needs almost instantly, which brings a lot of health and safety benefits and reduces stress.
Despite being known under one term, there are two main categories of co-sleeping you should consider as options – bed-sharing and room-sharing. Both of those are self-explanatory – bed-sharing is an approach where your baby sleeps in the same bed as one or both parents. Room-sharing gives all of them more space to work with, without sacrificing the close connection between the parents and the child.
While the trend has had its ups and downs throughout history, co-sleeping is increasingly popular in the West, with around 24% of parents reporting that they bed-share most of the time or all the time. This is a quadruple increase from the period around 1993, where the percentage of bed-sharing parents was at a measly 6%.
Co-Sleeping and Safety
Due to how fragile babies are, child safety is the number one concern for all parents, experienced or otherwise. The first question a parent will ask when you explain co-sleeping should be (and often is) “How safe is co-sleeping?” There could be a whole host of potential reasons why you would decide to bed-share or room-share, but let’s look at expert opinions – the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) claims that parents should room-share (but not bed-share) with their children for at least the first six months, if not a full year or more. This is consistent with what pediatricians from New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries say. Co-sleeping as a whole lets the mother breastfeed the child in a moment’s notice, and both parents can generally access the baby to help it fulfill its needs very quickly and easily.
Bed-sharing, while useful in its own right, is often advised against due to an increased risk of overheating, suffocation or entanglement. Still, it can help in situations where the baby is being fed, and the parent is afraid they’ll fall asleep while they’re in a chair or on another similar piece of furniture. Every risk associated with bed-sharing is that much more dangerous when there’s less space to work with, so it’s recommended for the parent to move to a bed if they aren’t sure they can stay awake.
The Risk of SIDS
Sudden infant death syndrome (or SIDS) is one of the biggest fears of every parent during the period where it presents a threat (the first twelve months of your baby’s life). The biggest problem is that SIDS is unexplained, and researchers are still trying to pinpoint potential causes. SIDS typically occurs during the night, which has led experts to theorize that sleep arrangements such as bedding and co-sleeping could play an important role. Bed-sharing is put in a tough spot here because SIDS is one of the main risks associated with this practice, along with entrapment, suffocation and overheating. It is believed that co-sleeping reduces the risk of SIDS, but only if the baby is on a separate sleeping surface, such as a baby crib.
The risks of bed-sharing can be difficult to grasp in their entirety. Many things can contribute to SIDS, including the parents’ smoking or drinking habits, where the bed-sharing takes place (increased risk has been linked with furniture such as sofas, where there’s less space than in a conventional bed), biological issues such as low birth weight or premature birth, etc. For this reason, many pediatricians will simply recommend room-sharing in every scenario where it is possible.
Health Benefits of Co-Sleeping
Despite what paranoid parents would tell you about risks, co-sleeping offers a good handful of benefits that make it a tempting way to improve your child’s sleep quality (as well as yours) and the speed at which their needs are met. One of the first things you want to consider is accessibility. Even if your baby isn’t in the same bed as you, you can respond to its cries much faster than if it was in a separate room. If you can get your hands on a bedside sleeper, it’s even easier. Bedside sleepers are essentially semi-enclosed baby beds that let the baby sleep very close to the mother without bed-sharing directly. This helps the mother breastfeed without losing a ton of sleep by moving around the house.
Bonding is one of the main purposes of co-sleeping in general. Babies sleep a lot better when they can sense the presence of their parents nearby (especially the mother). A fussing baby can easily be calmed by the mother reaching out and gently stroking the baby’s head and adjusting its position to prevent any health risks. While bed-sharing puts the parent and child into direct physical contact for most of the night and helps them sync up their sleeping schedule for maximum comfort, experts claim it’s not worth risking all the downsides of bed-sharing.
Ideal Bedding Arrangements for Co-Sleeping
Babies and adults need different things from their mattresses. It is particularly notable after attempted bed-sharing – as a rule, adult mattresses are much softer than what is necessary to support the child properly. Babies can accidentally roll over on a mattress that’s too soft, which can block their airways and cause serious health risks. For this reason, baby cribs and bassinet mattresses are purposefully made to be more firm, which keeps the baby comfy and secure.
If you’re using a crib or bassinet to room-share with your baby, make sure they’re positioned in a way that prevents the baby from rolling out of bed or falling into the crevice between the bed and the wall. It’s not very hard to prevent this problem, but it’s priority number one in almost every situation. Move any room furniture out of the way to create an optimal sleeping environment for your child.
Another thing to remember (especially when bed-sharing directly) is that things adults use for extra comfort, such as plush pillows, present a very real suffocation risk for the baby. If you look at pictures of well-arranged cribs, there is nothing in them except for a comfortable fitted sheet. There’s a very good reason for this, since no matter the size, most other soft objects you can put into the crib can block the baby’s airway.
Co-Sleeping Safety Tips
When it comes to co-sleeping and your child’s health and safety, it’s impossible to go overboard with protective and preventive measures. The more confident you are in how you’ve set up your baby’s sleeping environment, the less stressed out you’ll be around the clock, and you can sleep easy knowing that your child’s health is not negatively affected by co-sleeping while you reap its benefits. Here’s the list:
- Always place your baby on his or her back. Any other position risks suffocation and SIDS, as well as potential arm injuries from rolling over. Research shows that SIDS rates in the United States have dropped by as much as 50% since 1994 when awareness was spread of back sleeping as the ideal position for babies.
- There are specific substances that either outright prevent bed-sharing or make it even riskier than it normally is. Smokers should never bed-share, and alcohol consumption has to be avoided if the person in question wishes to bed-share. Unfortunately, even some prescription medication can cause trouble – the idea is that the parent(s) should be able to wake up at a moment’s notice and help their child when necessary. Sleep medication often makes the user much harder to rouse, which creates problems when co-sleeping in general.
- If you are bed-sharing, give the baby enough space away from any pillows or blankets that pose a suffocation risk. It can be a problem if your bed isn’t big enough, but in those cases, you shouldn’t be bed-sharing anyway.
- Only bed-share with one child. Siblings can create a scenario where no one in that bed has enough space to sleep comfortably. Make sure that any pets you might have don’t have a habit of jumping into bed with you, as this can endanger the child by causing entrapment and suffocation.
- If your mattress is soft, avoid bed-sharing at all costs.
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Tanya is a professional writer and editor with a B.A. in English from the University of Chicago. Tanya has been fighting insomnia for most of her adult life, and she knows firsthand how vital a good night’s rest can be for people with sleep problems.