Co-sleeping looks different for different families. Some parents bring their baby into their bed at night. Others put baby to sleep in a co-sleeper that's attached to the side of the adult bed. Placing your baby to sleep in his own crib in your room is also a form of co-sleeping, and it's the scenario that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. When done safely, co-sleeping has physical and emotional benefits for both parents and baby.
Ease of Breastfeeding
Keeping your baby within reach allows you to breastfeed peacefully in your own bed. This close proximity also gives you more information about your baby's status than a baby monitor can.
James McKenna, an anthropologist who runs the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, said in an interview that nursing mothers and their babies are naturally attuned to one another at night. "A breastfeeding mother... sleeps lighter, and is more sensitive to where the baby is and what the baby needs, and the baby too is more sensitive to its mother's signals and responds accordingly," explains the professor, who has studied co-sleeping for more than 30 years. When your infant is next to you, you'll hear or sense him when he begins to stir, and can start nursing him before he has a chance to get so hungry that he cries.
Close nighttime contact can help you keep your parent-child bond strong. "With only 25 percent of its brain developed at birth, the human infant 'expects' and depends on proximity and contact with its caregiver's body, usually (but not always nor necessarily) the mother," writes McKenna on his laboratory's website. "Sleeping close to your infant is not simply a nice social idea but, for the infant, it represents a form of expected physiological regulation and support." Your baby will be reassured that, when he cries out for you, you're by his side right away.
Co-sleeping can give you a comforting feeling of closeness to your baby that you might miss if you work outside the home during the day.
On his lab's website, McKenna writes that co-sleeping has a potential safety benefit for babies. "The latter stages of sleep, i.e. deeper sleep, [are] known to be more difficult for infants to arouse from in order to terminate life-threatening apneas or breathing pauses." The sensory experiences of sharing a room with his parent – for instance, smelling his mother or hearing her snores – helps keep a baby in lighter stages of sleep.
Many parents worry about co-sleeping increasing the baby's risk of developing sudden infant death syndrome. No one knows exactly what causes SIDS, but it's believed to be related to a baby's ability to wake himself up – and that's easier to do when he's sleeping lightly. Still, a 2014 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that of the 8,207 SIDS victims included, around 70 percent were bed-sharing when they died.
Your proximity to your baby also allows you to intervene quickly if he does stop breathing or has some other medical issue, or in the event of an emergency such as a fire.
McKenna points to long-term studies that have found associations between co-sleeping and increased self-esteem, intimacy, school performance and behavior as compared to children who slept alone as infants. Still, he also suggests that sleeping arrangements merely reinforce positive attributes in a child rather than being responsible for them. So it's probably not co-sleeping alone that causes a child to grow up to be independent; rather, the sum of his parents' choices – including co-sleeping – shape him into that person.
Co-sleeping can also help a breastfeeding mom sync her sleep schedule to that of her baby, help the baby fall asleep more easily than he would when sleeping alone and help the baby get more overall sleep.
How to Co-Sleep Safely
Even with the AAP's recommendations in mind, some parents make the decision to bed-share. "I would never want to insist that any parent co-sleeps in any particular way, except to be mindful of safety issues whether the baby is sleeping on a separate surface, attached co-sleeper or in bed with the mother," McKenna said in an interview. Your baby should never be put to sleep on a couch or recliner.
No matter where he sleeps, your baby needs a firm surface free of blankets, padding like crib bumpers, stuffed animals or anything else that could cover his nose and mouth. Dress him lightly for sleep. If you do choose to bed-share, no other children should be in the bed. There should be no gaps between the mattress and footboard or headboard. Don't bed-share if you or your partner has been drinking or has taken drugs or medication that put you to sleep.
As long as you take safety precautions, the decision of how to co-sleep with your child is individual to each family, McKenna advises. "The point is always that it is a negotiation the parent(s) makes with the infant, so to speak, and a very personal decision at best. ... But what I hope is that parents are able to have free access to all information and not just what someone else like the AAP thinks they ought to know."
Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.