Is Co-sleeping Right For You?

By Sasha Viasasha

Co-sleeping can be the kind of choice that parents research first and decide on later. But often as not, it’s a practice that emerges organically out of the lived experience of parenthood and seems to defy conventional wisdom. But a growing body of research suggests that there may be a wisdom of its own in the practice. Applying research on an infant’s behavior when sleeping alone in a crib to a co-sleeping arrangement obfuscates some important facts.

When the physiological effects of sleep-sharing are considered, a very different picture emerges. When mother-infant pairs were studied in a sleep laboratory, it was discovered that synchronous arousals occurred more often and that the sleepers were able to adjust themselves to changes without awakening. Infants spent more time on their backs (one of the recommendations for preventing SIDS) than in a crib, and some preliminary findings suggest that the minute amounts of carbon dioxide exhaled by the mother may stimulate the infants breathing. Intriguingly, researchers discovered that the closer the baby is to the mother’s face, the higher the carbon dioxide concentration is.

I shared the bed only occasionally with my two oldest children, never telling anyone, and generally following the mandates of the moment, but with my youngest son, born nineteen years after my first, things were somewhat different. I nursed him exclusively for the first year and we put him in a crib to begin with. But I was completely unwilling to let him “cry it out.” The sight of his flailing arms, red face, and his upward spiraling cry was entirely too much. It didn’t make sense and none of our gentle methods to coax him into the crib were effective. As an older parent, I trusted my instincts in a way that I wasn’t able to as a young mother. We brought him into our bed.

This was three years ago. We still share a bed. It fits into the flow of our life. Our schedules are loose. My son does not attend daycare. Both my husband and I work at home and we all go to bed at the same time. Some of the sweetest memories of his young life are moments we all share just before drifting off to sleep or in the early morning. Is co-sleeping for everyone? No, of course not. But we soon learned that we were not alone. As Dr. Sears, the attachment parenting guru, says about his family’s own co-sleeping arrangement: “At first we thought we were doing something unusual, but we soon discovered that many other parents slept with their babies, too. They just don’t tell their doctors or in-laws about it. In social settings, when the subject of sleep came up, we admitted that we slept with our babies. Other parents would secretly “confess” that they did, too. Why should parents have to be so hush-hush about this nighttime parenting practice and made to feel they are doing something strange?”

Despite many claims to the contrary, there may actually be scientific benefits to co-sleeping. In cultures where co-sleeping is the norm, SIDS rates are much lower than in the west. And a recent study covering more than 20 regions in Europe found that 16% of incidences of SIDS were attributable to bed-sharing, compared to 36% attributed to the baby sleeping in a separate room.

Yet there is no question that co-sleeping can be a dangerous practice if alcohol, tobacco, or sedatives are used. Also, families on a tight schedule may find the practice untenable. If a child has to go to bed at a certain hour to get up the next day, co-sleeping could certainly be disruptive. Some considerations:

  • Both parents should be in complete agreement about the arrangement. If one partner feels uncomfortable or resentful, the family should transition to another arrangement.
  • Young infants should sleep next to their mother, beside the guardrail.
  • Make sure there are no cracks between the mattress and frame that an infant’s head could slip into.
  • Excess bedding and pillows should be avoided.
  • The mattress should be firm, clean, safe and large enough to comfortably accommodate all sleepers.
  • Young infants should sleep on their backs and parents should be educated about SIDS.

References:

  1. McKenna, James, and Mosko, Sarah (1993) Evolution and infant sleep: an experimental study of infant-parent cosleeping and its implications for SIDS: an experiment in evolutionary medicine. Acta Paediatrica 389: 31-36.
  2. Elias, M. F., Nicholson, N. A., Bora, C., & Johnston, J. (1986). Sleep/wake patterns of breast-fed infants in the first two years of life. Pediatrics 77: 322-329.
  3. Co-Sleeping: Yes, No, Sometimes? Retrieved from: Ask Dr. Sears. http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/sleep-problems/co-sleeping-yes-no-sometimes
  4. Carpenter, R.G., et. al. (2004, January 17). Sudden unexplained infant death in 20 regions in Europe: case control study. The Lancet. 363, 9404: 185 – 191. Retrieved from: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2803%2915323-8/fulltext
  5. Breazeale, Tami (2001). Cosleeping. Retrieved from: The Natural Child Project. http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/tami_breazeale.html

Posted by CJ Newton, MA, Counseling.info Editor on May 23, 2012 at 05:00 AM

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