Are You Considering Co-Sleeping? What You Should Know Before You Decide

Co-sleeping is a popular option for parents with infants or toddlers. It’s important to know the pros and cons of sleeping together before you decide if it’s right for you and your family.

By Nicole Gleichmann

Spending the night cuddling with your new bundle of joy might seem like a dream. You get to spend more time together, easily nurse, and maybe even sleep more. Yet, there are some downsides to sleeping together, a practice known as co-sleeping.

Co-sleeping can pose unique hurdles when it comes to both sleep quality and safety. Fortunately, there is more than one way to share a sleeping space with your baby or toddler, and doing it the right way can reduce some of the risks while keeping many of the benefits. Read on to learn the benefits, drawbacks, and best practices of co-sleeping.

What Is Co-Sleeping?

Co-sleeping is simply parents and children sleeping in close vicinity to one another in the same room. It often starts when a child is an infant or when a toddler comes into the room when they wake up in the middle of the night. Co-sleeping arrangements include any of the following:

  • A Shared Family Bed: Bed sharing is what most people envision when they hear the term co-sleeping. This is where the baby or toddler sleeps in the same bed as either one or both parents.
  • Sidecar Arrangement: Similar to the sidecar on a motorcycle, in this sleep arrangement the child has a separate surface to sleep on that’s adjacent to the parent’s bed. Either a co-sleeper bassinet (which can be made or purchased pre-made) or a crib is placed against the parent’s bed. The crib or bassinet can be either 3-sided or 4-sided with one short wall, having the open or short side facing the parent’s bed.
  • A Shared Room but Separate Beds: Room sharing in different beds allows for the parents and children to have their own separate sleeping spaces. Often, the child’s bed is within reach of the parent’s bed.
  • As-Needed: Some parents will allow their children to join them in their bed on an as-needed basis. This is common when toddlers awake in the middle of the night and struggle to fall back asleep on their own.

Who Practices Co-Sleeping?

Go far enough back in human history and co-sleeping would have been the norm. Families wouldn’t have had adult bedrooms and child bedrooms, but rather shared sleeping quarters. In fact, this type of arrangement is still the norm in some societies, particularly those found in developing countries with collectivist cultures.

What are collectivist cultures? They’re cultures that place more value on the good of the whole rather than on that of the individual (the polar opposite of the individualist culture in the United States and much of Europe).

In the 20th century, however, co-sleeping started to pop up more frequently in Western cultures. It was during this time that attached parents started to use this method and advocate for its benefits. Since then, more parents and scientists alike have been examining co-sleeping and comparing it to the separate sleeping structure that’s more common in the West.

Related: Sleep in Different Cultures

Why Western Parents Are Adopting Co-Sleeping Arrangements

Co-sleeping often starts when the child is an infant and frequent breastfeeding is needed throughout the night, interrupting the sleep schedule of both mom and baby. Instead of waiting until the baby is screaming and the mom has to drudge herself from one room to another, co-sleeping mother and baby can successfully breastfeed with less sleep interruption. This can be valuable for both sleep quality and mental health.

There are also parents who practice co-sleep accidentally, with circumstances arising that make sleeping in the same room seem like the best (or only) option. For example, if a baby or toddler has a sleep condition and finds sleep difficult, having them close might be a way to more easily help them fall asleep and sleep soundly. Another example is when parents live in a home that is too small for their child to have a separate room, leaving co-sleep as the only option.

For the as-needed bed sharers, sharing a bed can be an open invitation when a toddler has a nightmare or isn’t sleeping well. Rather than taking the hard-knock life approach, some sleeping parents would rather opt for a good night’s sleep than enforce a separate sleeping policy.

The Pros and Cons of Co-Sleeping

There is no one simple answer as to whether or not co-sleeping is a good idea. Its merits aren’t widely studied, nor are its possible disadvantages. Additionally, how co-sleeping affects one family to the next will be different, with some finding value and others finding undesirable consequences.

Here we will review both sides, including the benefits that proponents profess and the downsides that may arise.

Co-Sleeping Benefits

  1. Can improve sleep quality and quantity for mom and baby during breastfeeding years
  2. Makes nighttime nursing easier
  3. Allows more time together as a family (particularly for families who have little quality time together)
  4. May enhance family bonds and emotional relationships with others
  5. Reduces nighttime separation anxiety in infants and toddlers
  6. Can reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by up to 50% when in the same room but different beds

Co-Sleeping Downsides

  1. Might lead to less sleep for parents and infants (parents can wake up to every cry and then disrupt the baby more)
  2. Can increase the risk of SIDS by two to three times if sharing the same bed
  3. Could make separate rooms down the road challenging
  4. May negatively affect mom’s physical and mental health when sleeping with a toddler that has sleep troubles
  5. Will pose a risk to the baby’s health if the bed is not appropriately setup

Deciding If You Should Co-Sleep

After hearing the pros and cons, you might still find the decision tough to make. Maybe one of you is leaning towards sharing your room or bed, and the other parent is a bit more resistant to sharing your private space.

If you and your partner are unsure about how you want to sleep, bring in an expert. You can talk with a sleep coach or your pediatrician to develop the right plan for you and to know what steps to take when you run into hurdles.

Tips for Setting Up a Safe Co-Sleeping Environment

If you decide to co-sleep there are a variety of precautions you should take and a fair amount of research to do to make sure that you get it right. Let’s go over a few of the things that you should know before sharing your room with your kiddos.

The most important thing is safety, particularly with an infant. Our first tip is that you shouldn’t share your bed with your baby that’s not yet 4 months old as this increases the risk of injury to the child. This warning is particularly relevant to parents who are deep sleepers, very tired, on medications that make them drowsy, and those who drink, smoke marijuana, or use other drugs.

When it comes to safety, the best option for children of all ages is having the parent’s bed separate from the child’s bed or crib. This way you can reduce the risk of accidental injury. Plus, sharing beds leads to needlessly waking one another up.

Lastly, you want to take the same precautions setting up your baby’s crib or sleeping space as you would if the baby were sleeping on their own. This includes being sure that the sleeping space:

  • Contains no stuffed animals, pillows, or loose bedding
  • Is firm (no waterbeds, couches, bean bags, or other soft surfaces)
  • Has bedding tightly fitted to the mattress
  • Doesn’t have any space between the mattress and the adjoining walls, headboards, side of the crib, and footboards

Final Thoughts

Many families around the world have had great success with co-sleeping. Having your baby or toddler sleep in your room or in your bed can provide comfort, encourage bonding, and enhance sleep quality for some families. Yet, there are some downsides of co-sleeping, particularly sharing one’s family bed. It’s up to you and your physician to decide what’s best for your family.

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