Co-sleeping, or children sleeping with one or both parents, is one of the most controversial topics we’ve encountered as new parents. When I was pregnant, we had no intention of bed sharing with our baby. We planned for her to sleep in a bassinet in our room so that we could have the comfort of being near each other without the suffocation risks we kept reading about. We planned for her to sleep in our room, either in her bassinet or crib, for the first year. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends room sharing until at least six months of age and preferably the first year to protect against sudden infant death syndrome).
But like most things with parenting, there are nuances. The night after she was born, we co-slept in the hospital. It felt so unnatural to be apart from her and she was fussy, so I put her on my chest. The skin-to-skin contact felt so comforting for both of us. Before we left the hospital the next day, the nurse warned us not to co-sleep once we got home. And to be honest, I don’t think we intended to. But the reality was that we all slept better when we were together. Putting her in a bassinet went against my instincts. I’m such a light sleeper that it felt safe to me. She was a full-term, healthy baby. I was also breastfeeding, which is thought to make moms sleep less deeply and more sensitive to baby’s movement. And of course neither my husband or I were drinking alcohol or taking any drugs.
When my midwife made a home visit two days later, she asked how we were sleeping. My husband and I exchanged nervous looks. I didn’t know her stance on co-sleeping and was afraid of being shamed for our decision. But she said there was nothing wrong with co-sleeping as long as we were doing it safely. Throughout pregnancy, I made a lot of progress in learning to trust my instincts and not rely on others to tell me what was best for my body and my baby. But in that very raw postpartum moment, I felt so validated and relieved. During our baby’s first two weeks, we co-slept and then she moved to her bassinet. She was ready for more independence and so were we.
I decided to write about co-sleeping not because I think it’s particularly better than any other sleep method. And not because I want to convince more people to try it. Simply, I want to raise the point that you have the right to trust your instincts and choose what’s right for you and your family without guilt or shame. And if you do choose bed sharing, do your research.
In The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy & Childbirth, Genevieve Howland says that two separate studies, both published in JAMA Pediatrics, indicate that as many as 50 percent of parents practice bed sharing at least some of the time. If you fall into that category, you’re not alone. Howland says, “When it comes to bed sharing, specifically, it’s not the practice itself that’s unsafe–UNICEF and La Leche League International, for example actually support bed sharing–but the way it’s practiced. In other words, there’s absolutely a wrong way to do it; when practiced incorrectly, sleeping alongside an infant can be exceedingly dangerous. Unfortunately, our tendency to lump together safe forms of co-sleeping and unsafe practices gives all forms of co-sleeping a negative connotation. This prevents many parents from talking openly about co-sleeping and bed sharing, or from seeking guidance on how to do it safely.”
For up-to-date research on co-sleeping, The Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame is a great science-based resource on bed sharing. It’s led by Professor James J. McKenna, who is recognized as the world’s leading authority on mother-infant co-sleeping in relationship to breastfeeding and SIDS. You can find their safe guidelines for sleeping with infants here. For more information, you might want to check out Dr. McKenna’s book Safe Infant Sleep: Expert Answers to Your Cosleeping Questions which was published in 2020.