Co-Sleeping: New Studies are a Little Scary

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Shutterstock: Oksana Shufrych

Shutterstock: Oksana Shufrych

When I was in the hospital for the delivery of my third child in 2010,  I was amazed to see the difference in hospital procedures regarding co-sleeping. Now, 6 years later, this topic is more controversial than ever.  Based on new research, I highly doubt that my hospital (or many others) are encouraging it.  Here’s my experience with co-sleeping and the new research that’s blowing the lid off of this beloved practice.

Co-Sleeping in 2010

After baby #3 was born, the hospital staff introduced me to “kangaroo care”, a skin-on-skin practice originally used for premature infants.  My hospital had adopted the practice for full-term babies as well and the research that they presented to substantiate the new practice was extraordinary.  Kangaroo Care began in the 70’s when researchers  made the connection between skin-on-skin infant care and survival rate. According to decades of research, Kangaroo Care stabilizes baby’s heart rate, improves breathing patterns, decreases crying, and improves oxygen saturation levels.   It made perfect sense to extend this brilliant practice to full-term babies as well.

After a few hours of “kangaroo” bonding with my baby, my nurse came in and asked if she could help me get situated for some sleep (something that, of course, I was more than ready for).  Instead of moving the baby into the basinet next to me (as I anticipated), she grabbed a few extra pillows from the closet and began situating them on each side of me with my arm wrapped in such a way that the baby was snuggled next to me, both of us on our backs.  She explained that the pillows on either side would prevent me from rolling onto the little guy while we slept.  She was setting me up to sleep with my baby, in the hospital!  Was this allowed?   I wasn’t entirely clear whether there was a connection between “Kangaroo Care” and co-sleeping.  But they certainly seemed to go hand in hand.   As other nurses came in, they seemed to recognize it as a common protocol.  One nurse asked if I had older kids at home.  When I replied that I did have 2 older children, she recommended that I try co-sleeping with the new baby because I would get more rest this way. I was sold.

When I got home, we experimented with  it and we loved it.   I LOVED CO-SLEEPING!  I situated my pillows the way that the nurse had shown me and we slept the entire night without a peep.  No crying baby.  No exhausted mama.  I wondered how I’d survived my first two kids without this secret.   Co-sleeping was the miracle that kept my mommy motor running during the day and my baby rested and content at night. But based on what I’m reading today, we might have just been lucky.

The Dangers of Co-Sleeping

After studying data on more than 8,000 infant deaths between 2004 and 2012, researchers have determined that nearly 75% of all infant deaths occur in co-sleeping arrangements.  Millions of mothers just like me co-sleep for various reasons: It helps the baby sleep longer.  It makes nights less stressful.  And, of course, it helps mommy get the rest that she so desires. But while this practice is enticing, the dangers seem to largely outweigh the benefits.

This issue is, no doubt, a hot button for many new parents.  Many co-sleeping mothers have reported co-sleeping to be  “instinctive” and the most natural situation for a baby who has spent 9 months in utero.  So, is there a way to do it safely?  It seems that not many experts within this study arena are willing to support it at all.

While Kangaroo Care bonding is beneficial (and in many cases life-saving) to the new baby, co-sleeping does not seem to produce the same benefits.

Dr. Carlos Lerner (an associate professor of pediatrics at Mattell Children’s Hospital at UCLA and medical director of the UCLA Children’s Health Center) addressed it this way:

“Babies may well be happier next to mom and may sleep better,” he explained. “Sometimes a baby is just too fussy. The mom gets the baby quiet and then tries to put him down in his own crib and he starts crying again… If a mom tells me she’s decided to co-bed I do mention that there is evidence that it is actually safer for babies to sleep separately and if she is interested I go into more detail. But if it is clear that despite the evidence she wants to proceed with co-bedding, I say, let’s see how we can make it safer.”

General Safety Guidelines for Bed-Sharing

This recent study did not analyze factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and drug use which are, no doubt, major contributing factors when it comes to the safety of co-sleeping.  According to physicians such as Dr. Sears, co-sleeping is natural and can be done safely.  Sears recommends the following practices if you choose to co-sleep with your baby:

  • Sleep in a king-size bed if possible, to give everybody enough room.
  • Be sure there are no wide crevices between the mattress and the guardrail or headboard that your baby’s head could sink into.
  • Never allow infants to sleep in the same bed with siblings or caregivers – they may not have the same awareness of a baby’s presence that parents do.
  • Don’t fall asleep with your baby on a surface that isn’t firm, such as a couch or a beanbag chair; she could suffocate by getting wedged between the cushions.