Co-sleeping is a sleep practice that’s been around for as long as people have been having babies. It is one of the practices associated with attachment parenting, which advocates increasing the connection between the parent and child and thereby setting the stage for secure relationships later in life.
Co-sleeping is characterized by sleeping close to your baby, either through bed-sharing or room sharing with a bassinet or crib kept within arm’s reach. Co-sleeping can also entail children and caregivers sharing sleeping locations for all or part of a night for all or just some nights.
The sleep controversy across cultures and research
Few topics are as heated or polarizing amongst new parents as sleep. Whether it’s in sleep arrangements or sleep training methods, or even bedtime routines, co-sleeping seems to lead parents to draw a line in the sand of parenting, separating those who do from those who don’t.
It can be hard to figure out the healthiest choice for your family. I was blissfully unaware of these controversies until I had my son. I thought there’s nothing sweeter and comforting than cuddling up all night with your newborn. Then one of my relatives advised me that we couldn’t share the same bed with our child, as according to the traditions of our culture here in Kenya, men are not supposed to hold or be close to their offspring for the 1st year of their life.
While I was aware of the risk of increasing our baby’s chance of SIDS, the cultural citation sounded strange. Nonetheless, I embarked on a journey of learning more about co-sleeping, cultural differences, benefits, risks, and safety guidelines, which I’ll share with you.
The practice of co-sleeping is well accepted in developing countries, but largely frowned upon by Western cultures. In most cultures, co-sleeping is the norm until the child is weaned, and some continue long after weaning. But there are still a few cultures in the world for which it would ever be considered acceptable or desirable to have babies sleeping alone.
Co-sleeping with a newborn can take on many forms adaptable to many lifestyles around the globe. Some parents in the Philippines and Vietnam sleep with their baby in a hammock next to the bed. Others place them in a wicker basket in the bed between the two parents. In Japan, many parents sleep next to their baby on bamboo or straw mats.
Most cultures place greater value on kinship than the individual; hence, they are more likely to co-sleep. Western societies like the US, on the other hand, emphasize individual independence. Anthropologist and author of Safe Infant Sleep, James McKenna, points out that gaining independence is something that a child learns over time from his/her parents in many different ways.
Interestingly, co-sleeping is more common in Western cultures than most people believe. The idea of following societal norms of having the baby in a separate room and parents in the master bedroom has pushed some parents to present themselves as having children who sleep alone throughout the night even if that isn’t really the case.
And while the family bed seems appealing to parents, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long discouraged co-sleeping. They insisted that it puts babies at risk for suffocation, strangulation, and parent rollover.
Meanwhile, other researchers observe that SIDS is lowest in cultures that routinely practiced co-sleeping. Many of these tropical countries use a few pillows and blankets that might suffocate or smother the child, partly indicating why. At 2 to 3 months, when SIDS peaks, an adult’s close supervision and presence is especially critical if the baby has a glitch in the development of her breathing mechanics.
Parents choose to co-sleep with babies for several reasons:
- They feel better rested, and their babies feel safe and secure.
- Close body contact is rewarding and satisfying.
- It’s suitable for building emotional bonds with their babies.
- It makes nighttime nursing and resettling easier for the breastfeeding mom.
- Their babies go to sleep faster and stay asleep for long stretches.
- It helps put mom’s sleeping more in sync with the baby’s.
- It gives parents more time with their babies, especially if they haven’t seen them much during the day.
10 safe co-sleeping guidelines
The AAP initially recommended that babies be put to sleep on their backs, separately from adults, and indeed, the SIDS rates began to decline. Research over the years reveals that the risk of bedsharing can be managed when done safely.
While it still discourages bed-sharing, the AAP now recognizes that it happens and wants to help parents do it safely. The revised guidelines now also focus on safe sleep environments and how to co-sleep safely.
- It is safest for your baby to share a room with you, sleeping in a cot next to your bed. Room-sharing decreases the risk of sleep-related death by as much as 50%.
- Always put your baby down to sleep on her back. If you fall asleep while nursing, place her on her back on a separate sleep surface immediately after you wake up.
- Place your child on a sleep surface that’s firm to reduce the chance of rebreathing (or suffocation) if he/she rolls over to the prone position.
- Don’t sleep with your baby on the couch or an armchair. Soft furniture with armrests increases the risk of SIDS and suffocation through entrapment.
- Ensure your infant’s breathing isn’t obstructed by blankets, sheets, pillows, or other soft objects. A safe co-sleeping position is away from all bedding.
- Consider a pacifier at naptime and bedtime. For breastfed infants, delay pacifier introduction until breastfeeding is firmly established.
- Ensure your baby can’t fall out of bed or become trapped between the mattress and the wall.
- Don’t share a bed if you are under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or are a smoker, you have sleep disorders, you are excessively tired, or if your baby was born premature or had low birth weight.
- Don’t wrap or swaddle your baby if you’re co-sleeping.
- Place your baby to the side, never between 2 adults or next to other children or pets. Your baby might get rolled on or overheat.
The best co-sleepers
A co-sleeper is a product that makes co-sleeping safe, is more comfortable, and keeps your newborn close enough to your body.
Co-sleepers are designed to allow the baby to sleep right beside your family bed (bedside sleeper) or even in it (in-bed sleepers) while still maintaining a separate sleep space for the baby. Look out for size and versatility, the material used, safety features, and ease of cleaning when picking out a co-sleeper.
Currently, the best co-sleeper on the market for most parents is the Arm’s Reach Concept Mini. This baby co-sleeper attaches to the bed as a bedside bassinet, but can also be a stand-alone bassinet. With enough storage space, it has mesh panels all the way around, helping your baby breathe easier, and letting you keep him/her in sight from all angles.
It’s worth noting that the AAP task force can’t say whether bedside sleepers or in-bed sleepers are considered safe for co-sleeping due to lack of enough research.
When to move your baby to a crib
We co-slept for just about 3 months before transitioning my son to his crib in our room. His father would accidentally roll over to our baby’s side and place his arm on his tiny face. We relegated the dad to the foot of the bed, but even that didn’t work. We felt it was risky to continue.
Regardless of why you started co-sleeping, there often comes the point when you’re ready to stop and have your bed back. Most parents who sleep with their children report that children usually want their own beds by time they are 2 to 3 years old. It can take longer though and sometimes parents want to stop co-sleeping before their child does.
According to the AAP recommendations, your baby should sleep in the same room as you for at least 6 months, and optimally a year. While it helps with bonding and making night nursing easier, it can also help quell some of the anxiety you may feel about having your baby in a separate room.
Don’t move your child just before or after a new baby arrives. They shouldn’t feel that they moved out to make space for their new sibling. In case your baby is in pain or ill, temporarily let them back into your bed.
How to transition your baby to a crib
The transition from bed sharing to his crib was not easy. At times when I was sleep deprived or when he’d cry for a long time, I would bring him over. It took a significant level of discipline to get it right finally.
These tips will smoothen your child’s transition out of your sleeping space and into their own, no matter their age:
- Night wean first. f you are still breastfeeding at night, don’t stop co-sleeping until your baby is night weaned. It is gentler while your child still has your proximity for reassurance.
- Keep him/her at arm’s length. If you used a bedside sleeper which allows for separate but close sleeping accommodations, consider bringing it out again for your child to get used to sleeping in their own space while still close to you.
- Bring the crib to your baby. Instead of putting your toddler in his room from the get-go, put his crib in your bedroom with you. At first, use the crib for naptimes. Once he’s adjusted well to sleeping in his own space, move the crib back to his room. Let him make one transition at a time. It’s what we did.
- Introduce other comfort cues. Condition a specific smell, light, blanket, storybook, or music (white noise) for 6 weeks while still co-sleeping. These should make your child feel secure and remind them of you in your absence.
- Get your child used to their room. Set up your child’s bedroom at least 2 months before you plan to stop room sharing. Play with them in their bedroom as much as possible. They need to see their bedroom as a happy and positive place to be. You can sleep with them in their bed for the whole night for 2 weeks. If they sleep on a cot or crib mattress, you can use a bedroll or air mattress next to them. After the 2 weeks, you can slowly roll away from them once they are asleep. If they wake in the night, you lay alongside them and cuddle them until they sleep again.
- Pick your approach and be consistent. Your method depends on your family’s preference and the baby’s temperament. Some babies prefer a reassuring parent sitting next to the crib while others do better with a “cold turkey” strategy. You and your partner should be on the same page with plans for late-night awakenings. Once you’ve picked the most comfortable approach for your family, stick with it. The transition from family bed to crib roughly takes up to 3 weeks. Despite the protests from your baby, you should stay firm and reassuring.
- Talk to your baby about your plan. Read them books about babies who sleep through the night, such as the following:
Talk about how happy and rested you feel when they sleep until morning in their own sleep space.