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Harvard Researchers Say What Co-Sleeping Parents Knew All Along

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When my first baby was an infant, he wouldn’t really sleep anywhere but on my chest, or snuggled up against my breasts where his all-night open milk bar was located. We had a little bassinet next to the bed, but that was quickly becoming a laundry receptacle.

So, we did what many sleep-deprived, desperate parents did: we gave in and took him into bed with us on a nightly basis.

We’d read the Academy of American Pediatric (APA) guidelines—which state that newborns should sleep in the same room with their parents, but not in bed with them. And, well, we pretty much ignored that.

We looked up the guidelines for safe co-sleeping, clearing all excess blankets and pillows off the bed, making sure the baby was always between me and a bedrail, and we went for it.

And after a few weeks of bed-sharing like that, I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

Of course, many parents do not share my sentiments about co-sleeping, but I'm finding more and more research to push against the claim by the APA and others that co-sleeping is dangerous, bad for children’s development or the cause of sleep deprivation.

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Recently I came across the work of Robert and Sarah LeVine, a professor and former researcher from Harvard University, and co-authors of the book Do Parents Matter? Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax. In an editorial for the Los Angeles Times, the LeVines lay out some arguments for bed-sharing, emphasizing that most other cultures do it, and that it's actually healthy for babies and parents alike.

The LeVines explain that in their research of other cultures around the world, co-sleeping is actually the norm. Most African, Asian, and Latin American cultures do it, and look at us as the weird ones. “Indeed, many parents think it’s downright cruel to have a baby sleep alone,” say the LeVines, about how these parents view non-bedsharers, “Who would do such a heartless thing?”

Of course, many of these countries do have higher infant mortality rates than we do—although America happens to have one the highest infant mortality rates among industrialized countries. But the LeVines don’t believe bed-sharing is the cause of these rates, and cite the case of Japan, where almost all families co-sleep, and where the infant mortality rate is exceptionally low.

They argue that American parents are creating unnecessary work for themselves by placing their babies in another bed or another room...

“In Japan—a large, rich, modern country—parents universally sleep with their infants, yet their infant mortality rate is one of the lowest in the world—2.8 deaths per 1,000 live births versus 6.2 in the United States—and their rate of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, is roughly half the U.S. rate,” explain the LeVines.

The LeVines go on to explain that although many Japanese children sleep with their parents for years, they do not exhibit signs of over-dependence on their parents. In fact, Japanese children are more responsible, industrious, and independent than any children in the world, contributing to household and community chores at early ages.

They argue that American parents are creating unnecessary work for themselves by placing their babies in another bed or another room and explain that mothers in other cultures don't even understand the idea of babies waking up at night, because, to them, breastfeeding in the same bed as your baby is not a disturbance at all.

RELATED: We Need to Stop Diagnosing Babies and Toddlers With "Sleep Issues"

Now, even as a co-sleeping advocate, I would not say that there's no sleep disturbance whatsoever. I've been kicked in the head by a restless baby too many times to count. And I've often wondered if my babies would have woken up less if there weren’t other humans in their sleep space breathing and moving around nearby.

Still, co-sleeping, especially in the newborn period, always beat getting up and having to resettle a crying infant. And even after that, I enjoyed having my babies close, waking up with their twinkling eyes staring into mine, and being there if they had a bad dream, weren’t feeling well, or just needed a little extra reassurance.

Despite warnings from doctors, friends, and family, co-sleeping just always felt like the right thing for me and my babies. I’m glad I went with my instincts and did it anyway, but I’m also happy to see that the research seems to be catching up more and more with what so many of us bed-sharers knew all along.

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