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Co-sleeping with your baby: The pros and cons and what to be aware of



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Created on Jan 22, 2024 · 10 mins read
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Co-sleeping is one of those terms that can be hugely divisive in the parenting world. From those who swear by it and sing its praises to those who are staunchly against bed-sharing, it’s definitely a topic that gets people talking.

The reason for debate stems from a variety of factors, such as cultural norms and beliefs and the link to sudden infant death syndrome. Different countries have different guidelines as to what constitutes safe infant sleep, but in Australia, it is recommended that babies have their own safe sleep space to reduce the risk of SIDS.

Despite this, many parents prefer to co-sleep with their little ones as they feel that is what works for them and their families, for a variety of reasons.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the practice of co-sleeping, how it can be done safely as well as the risks and potential benefits.

What is co-sleeping?

So, what exactly is co-sleeping? Put simply, it’s when parents and their infants or young children sleep in close proximity to each other, typically in the same bed.

It can also include sharing the same room with a separate sleeping surface, such as a crib or bassinet that attaches to the parent’s bed.

There are different forms of co-sleeping, and cultural norms, as well as individual preferences, play a significant role in shaping sleeping arrangements. Some parents choose to co-sleep for bonding purposes, mental health reasons, convenience in nighttime caregiving, or cultural reasons. Some parents find their babies sleep better when co-sleeping, which means more sleep for them as well. In the case of breastfed babies, some mothers find that co-sleeping makes the demands of round-the-clock feeding a little easier while other parents again may find that their baby will only sleep if bed sharing.

Regardless of the reason, co-sleeping is something that should always be done with safe sleep guidelines in mind to minimise the potential risks associated with co-sleeping, especially for infants.

Is it safe to co-sleep with a baby?

The safety of co-sleeping with a baby depends on various factors, and it’s a topic that has generated both support and concerns within the medical community.

While many parents around the world practice co-sleeping without any issues, it’s always essential to follow safety guidelines to reduce the risk of accidents, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and accidental suffocation.

There are some studies that suggest that breastfeeding in bed and bed-sharing may have protective effects against SIDS, as long as it is done safely. Breastfeeding mothers are often more aware of their baby’s presence and needs, and breastfeeding has been associated with a lower risk of SIDS.

What is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?

Sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS, is the sudden and unexplained death of an otherwise healthy infant, usually during sleep.

The key characteristics of SIDS include:

Age range: SIDS most commonly occurs in infants between the ages of one month and one year, with the highest risk between two and four months of age.

Sleep environment: SIDS often occurs during sleep or in the sleep environment.

No clear cause of death: Despite a thorough investigation, there is no clear cause of death identified in cases of SIDS. It is not associated with a specific illness, infection, or external factors.

Unexpected: SIDS is unexpected and occurs without any warning signs or symptoms.

How to reduce co-sleeping risks and make it safer

If co-sleeping is something that you want to do, there are things to keep in mind that can reduce the risks somewhat. These include:

Choose the right bedding: If parents choose to co-sleep, they should be using a firm mattress, avoiding soft bedding, loose bedding, pillows, stuffed animals and heavy blankets, and ensuring there are no gaps or spaces where the baby could become trapped.

Positioning: It is recommended that babies sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS. If bed-sharing, the baby should be placed on their back to sleep, and parents should avoid having the baby between them, as this poses an increased risk of accidental suffocation.

Create a safe sleep environment: Tie up long hair and remove all jewellery to reduce the risk of strangulation.

Avoid overheating: Dress your baby in light clothing and keep the room at a comfortable temperature to prevent overheating.

Using a floor mattress: Using a floor mattress can be a good option for safe co-sleeping if certain precautions are taken to create a secure sleep environment for your baby. A mattress on the floor eliminates the risk of a baby falling from a raised surface, such as a bed. This can be particularly relevant as babies start to move and roll during sleep.

When is co-sleeping not recommended?

Co-sleeping may not be recommended or is discouraged in certain situations due to safety concerns. Here are some circumstances when it is recommended to avoid bed-sharing.

Parents under the influence: Co-sleeping is strongly discouraged if either parent has drunk alcohol, or taken drugs, or medications that impair their ability to be fully aware and responsive.

Smoking parents: Smoking increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and other respiratory issues. If parents smoke, it is advised not to co-sleep with the baby.

Premature birth or low birth weight: Premature infants or those with low birth weight may have special health considerations, and bed-sharing might not be recommended without guidance from healthcare professionals.

Illness or medication: If either the baby or the parents are ill, or if the baby is on medication that affects their sleep patterns, co-sleeping may not be advisable.

Heavy sleeper parents: Parents who are deep or heavy sleepers might not be as responsive to the baby’s movements, increasing the risk of accidental injury or suffocation. New parents are often extremely tired which can lead to them sleeping heavier than usual.

Unsafe sleep surfaces: Co-sleeping on sofas, armchairs, or other soft surfaces is discouraged, as there is a higher risk of accidental suffocation.

Presence of other children: Co-sleeping with an infant is not recommended if there are older siblings in the bed who might unintentionally pose a risk to the baby.

Inadequate sleeping space: If the sleeping space is cramped or cluttered, it may increase the risk of accidental suffocation. Ensure there is enough space for everyone to sleep safely.

Are there benefits of co-sleeping?

While there are certain risk factors involved in co-sleeping and bed sharing, there can also be potential benefits for some families. These include:

Bonding and attachment: Co-sleeping can facilitate bonding and attachment between parents and their babies.

Convenience for breastfeeding: Bed sharing can make nighttime breastfeeding more convenient. It allows for easy access for breastfeeding without having to get out of bed, potentially leading to better sleep for both the baby and the mother.

Increased sleep for parents: Some parents sleep better and for longer when co-sleeping, especially if the baby can be quickly soothed or breastfed without fully waking up.

Responsive parenting: Co-sleeping enables parents to respond more promptly to their baby’s needs, including comfort, feeding, or reassurance during the night.

Cultural practices: In many cultures, co-sleeping is a common and accepted practice. It is often viewed as a natural and integral part of family life.

Reduced nighttime anxiety: Some babies feel more secure and less anxious when they are close to their parents during sleep, leading to a potential reduction in nighttime crying and fussiness. Likewise, you may find that sleeping with your baby reduces your own anxiety as you are able to get more sleep of your own.

Soothing and comforting: The physical presence of a parent can provide comfort and a sense of security for the baby, which may contribute to more restful sleep.

Breastfeeding and co-sleeping

As we touched on above, choosing to co-sleep or bed share with your baby can make breastfeeding a little easier.

In addition to being able to breastfeed without having to get out of bed, which could result in more maternal sleep, some studies suggest that mothers who co-sleep with their infants are more likely to breastfeed for a longer duration. This is because close proximity can facilitate frequent breastfeeding, which can contribute to establishing and maintaining a successful breastfeeding relationship.

Another factor to consider is that co-sleeping mothers and babies wake up more during the night, which may protect against sleep-related infant deaths. When bed-sharing, the mother checks on her baby and breastfeeds them more frequently than when room-sharing.

What are the guidelines for safe sleep in Australia?

Red Nose Australia is an organisation that works tirelessly to reduce the rate of sudden unexpected death in infants.

Here are ways you can reduce the risk of SIDS or SUID, according to Red Nose Australia.

Safe sleep environment

Red Nose Australia recommends that an infant sleep in their own safe space where all potential dangers have been removed. This includes a cot or bassinet that has been correctly fitted with a new, firm mattress.

Red Nose also recommends room sharing, suggesting that the safest place for the cot is in the parents’ room, next to their bed for the first 6 months. Room sharing allows you to monitor the baby’s sleeping and be close in case something goes wrong.

Your baby’s sleep space should always be kept smoke-free – even before they are born.

Put baby to sleep on their back

When a baby sleeps on their back, their protective reflexes are activated and their airway remains clear. Sleeping on one’s back lowers the risk of choking, overheating, and suffocation.

A baby’s oesophagus is elevated above their upper airways when they sleep on their stomach. Milk or other liquids that a baby vomits or regurgitates will collect at the opening of their airway and are more likely to be inhaled by the infant and lodge in their lungs. That fluid will, however, pool at the back of the throat and be easier to swallow if they are put to sleep on their back.

Dress baby appropriately for sleep

Dress your baby as you would dress yourself for the temperature of the room – comfortably warm, not too hot, not too cold.

Research shows a clear link between overheating and an increased risk of sudden unexpected death in infancy which makes how you dress your baby for sleep extra important.

Breastfeed, if possible

Studies have shown a link between breastfeeding and a lower incidence of SIDS and SUDI. The World Health Organisation recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their lives.

Do not place additional items in your baby’s cot

Your child’s sleep surface should always be clear of extra items such as toys or loose bedding

If a blanket is being used, Red Nose recommends that you place your baby with their feet at the end of the cot, and tuck the blanket securely underneath the mattress, so it only reaches the baby’s chest and cannot ride up to cover their head.

Do not add quilts, pillows, bumpers, sheepskins or any other loose items as these are known risk factors in infant death during sleep.

The takeaway

Whether you choose to co-sleep with your baby or opt for room sharing instead, or even if your baby is in a separate room from you, it is always important to keep their safety at the top of your mind.

Observing the guidelines for safe bed sharing is super important when sleeping with your baby to ensure that the risk of sudden infant death is minimised. As with anything, if you have concerns or are in need of advice on how to safely bed share, or if co-sleeping is the right choice for you, you should always consult with your doctor or pediatrician.

The decision to co-sleep, bed share or room share is a very personal one and should take a number of factors (such as health, other children the risks and benefits) into consideration.

When in doubt, you can always refer to the Red Nose Guide for Safe Sleep for more information and advice on how to facilitate safe infant sleep, reduce the risk of infant death and for tips on how to ensure your child’s sleep surface is the safest it can be.

At the end of the day, sleep is a very sensitive topic for parents – particularly in those early days and weeks when there is not much of it to be found! – so you should figure out the sleeping arrangement that works best for you and your family, with your infant’s safety as the number one priority.

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