Is the ‘Family Bed’ for You?
When Redwood City resident Maeve Jordan’s daughter was born, she didn’t want her sleeping anywhere but by her side. Even the thought of putting her in a co-sleeper attached to the bed made her feel anxious.
For a short time, Jordan worried about dangers such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or the baby rolling off the bed. But now it doesn’t concern her at all.
“She doesn’t sleep well if she doesn’t have a warm body next to her,” Jordan says.
Many parents like Jordan embrace the idea of a “family bed,” in which one or both parents share a bed with babies and young children.
Also referred to as co-sleeping, it is standard practice in many parts of the world outside of North America, Europe and Australia. In fact, a 2006 study reported that 93 percent of children ages 3 to 10 co-sleep in India. In poorer parts of the world, families must share a bed because there are no separate beds or rooms and co-sleeping has the benefit of keeping the child warm at night.
Proponents say that it promotes bonding, is convenient for breastfeeding, helps parents get more sleep and protects against SIDS, because parents can monitor the child more throughout the night.
Opponents contend that co-sleeping is dangerous to the baby because of suffocation hazards such as loose pillows and comforters. They also say a parent could smother a child, the child could become overly dependent on parents – stunting confidence and independence – and it may hurt the parents’ relationship because there are few opportunities for intimacy.
Studies back up some concerns. According to a recent American Academy of Pediatrics report, infant deaths, attributed to accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed – as opposed to a crib – have quadrupled since 1984. They recommend against infants sharing a sleeping surface with adults.
Still, for some who support co-sleeping, it’s more than just a passing fad. Many parents say it helps their children – and them – sleep better. But most parents agree that it does affect their own patterns in bed – sleeping and otherwise.
A Difference of Opinion
San Francisco resident Rosalia Hinojosa has no regrets about co-sleeping with her son.
She originally shared a bed with him because he was born premature and the doctors told her she should try to keep him close to her body as much as possible so he would stay warm.
They also live in a small one bedroom in Noe Valley and don’t have a lot of space for a crib, Hinojosa says.
But now that their son has grown, the bed has become a little crammed.
“He takes over the whole bed,” she says. “We know he needs to move on.”
They tried moving him to his own bed, but he wouldn’t stop crying.
If they do co-sleep with their next child, Hinojosa says she will probably try to wean them from breastfeeding and co-sleeping sooner.
Nonetheless, she says it has been an “incredible bonding experience.”
However, Dawn Musil of Oakland says she doesn’t get the idea of “co-sleeping.”
She admits that when her 11-month-old daughter, Katharine, was a newborn she shared a bed with her occasionally because it was the only way to get her to sleep. But she could never imagine having her sleep between her and her husband every night.
“Maybe it’s because when I was growing up mom and dad’s bed was mom and dad’s bed. I may have occasionally slept in their bed when I had a nightmare, but that was it,” Musil says.
“I wonder if the people who co-sleep don’t want an intimate relationship with their spouse I would also be afraid I would smother the kid.”
Anything to Sleep Through the Night
When Gina Ledesma’s daughter outgrew her bassinet, she and her husband decided to let their daughter sleep in their bed after she screamed and cried in her crib. The Alameda resident says it was a mistake.
The baby stayed in their bed for eight months before they couldn’t take it anymore.
“I couldn’t cuddle with my husband, and the baby’s a kicker,” Ledesma says. “I thought it was never going to end.”
Since her husband couldn’t take listening to their daughter’s crying, he left for a few days while Ledesma worked on getting her to sleep in her crib.
Now 4 years old, she’s sleeping great in her own bed, Ledesma says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against infants sharing a sleeping surface with adults. However, it does encourage parents to have their infant sleep in a co-sleeper attached to a bed or a bassinet in their room
Dayna Long, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, says co-sleeping may affect how well both the baby and mother sleep. Studies on mothers’ and babies’ sleep cycles have shown that when the mother and baby sleep together there is more time in the lighter sleep stage and less time in the deep sleep stage, she says.
There are also more serious concerns. According to the AAP report, between 1984 and 2004, the infant mortality rates from accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed jumped from 2.8 to 12.5 deaths per 100,000 live births.
About half of all SIDS incidents happened when an adult was sharing a sleeping area with a child, says Long. The baby usually dies of suffocation when sleeping on soft surfaces such as pillows and comforters, or with adults who are obese, smokers or on drugs or alcohol.
“I think parents co-sleep because it will help with bonding, but if a child is raised in a loving environment, that bonding will happen,” Long says.
But people like Melanie Bandera-Hess of Fairfield, a proponent of co-sleeping, says she doesn’t believe in the dangers of co-sleeping. “The safest place a child could be is next to their mother,” she says. “We’re the greatest protectors, so the chance of us hurting our child is slim,” she says.
Interfering with Intimacy
Bandera-Hess says sharing a bed with her son has not hurt her sexual relationship with her husband. “We’ve had to redefine what the bed is for and that it’s not a sexual place anymore,” she says.
But other couples are having a more difficult time. In fact, co-sleeping is making it difficult for Oakland resident April Schlenk to get pregnant again.
Sometimes, she and her husband have grandparents baby-sit their daughter so they can have alone time at home. “We’ve had to be creative about making love,” she says.
The other tough part of co-sleeping comes when the parents feel it’s time to move the child into his or her own bed. Most say they don’t have a real plan for when or how they’re going to make that move.
Hinojosa and her husband will probably take a vacation, she says, to work specifically on getting their son to sleep through the night in his own bed.
But Long says parents should have a plan early in their child’s life.
After six months, she says, it’s usually difficult to get a baby to move out of a parents’ bed into their own bed. That’s because this is usually when babies start eating solids regularly and don’t need to breastfeed throughout the night, she says. So, sleeping with parents becomes more of a habit and less about needing nutrition from their mother.
Schlenk says they will probably try to make the transition in steps. For example, they are thinking about buying a toddler bed and putting it in their room first before they move their daughter into her own room.
Jordan says she wouldn’t mind having her 13-month-old daughter in her bed for two to three years.
“She’s a baby for such a short period of time, and I just want to cuddle with her during this time,” she says. “I feel like we both get comfort from it. I’m getting as much quality time with her as possible.”
T.M. Mills-Faraudo is a calendar editor at Bay Area Parent.
A Safe Family Bed
If you choose to share a bed with your baby, here are some tips on how to make co-sleeping safe:
Never leave an infant or toddler alone on an adult bed. Babies can roll off a bed or become tangled in blankets.
Never sleep with your baby on a waterbed or couch. There are too many hazards associated with suffocation.
Avoid railings on your bed or furniture next to your bed. Baby could get lodged in the railing or furniture.
Don’t push your bed against a wall. Baby could get lodged between the bed and the wall.
Never let another child sleep next to your baby. Children are heavy sleepers and could roll over on the infant.
Never sleep next to your baby if you are intoxicated, have been using any drugs, including medications, are overly tired, or feel in any way that you may not wake up easily.
Don’t share a bed with your child if you smoke. There have been higher cases of SIDS among parents who smoke.
Use a firm mattress. Babies are more likely to roll over and suffocate on a soft mattress.
Make sure bedding fits snuggly. Loose sheets could cover the baby’s face.
Make sure the mattress is flush against head and footboards. The baby could get lodged in any gaps.
Always place a baby to sleep on their back. Studies show this reduces the risk of SIDS.
Avoid overdressing your infant. Overheating increases the risk of SIDS.
Avoid strings or ties on pajamas or blankets. They could cause strangulation.
If you have long hair, make sure it’s pulled back in a ponytail or braid. Long hair could cause suffocation or strangulation.
- Three in a Bed: The Benefits of Sharing Your Bed with Your Baby. By Deborah Jackson, 1999
- Sleeping with Your Baby. By James J. McKenna, 2007
- Developmental Psychology. Cultural variation in infant’s sleeping arrangements: Questions of Independence. By G.A. Morelli, B. Rogoff, D. Oppenheim, and D. Goldsmith, 1992.
- The Family Bed. By Tine Thevenin, 1987.
- Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at University of Notre Dame – nd.edu/~jmckenn1/lab.
- safebedsharing.org – Information on safe co-sleeping, parenting forums and related links.
- tribalbaby.org – Tips and other information about bed sharing.