If Facebook is any indication, new parents love to take photos of their partners happily dozing with a sleeping baby. But while this moment may be picturesque, how safe is it?
The practice of having infants sleep in the same bed as mom and dad is known as bed-sharing. Sometimes done deliberately and sometimes done out of sheer exhaustion, it has become a hot-button issue among child sleep experts and parents alike.
The American Academy of Pediatrics frowns on bed-sharing and called it "hazardous" in a 2005 policy statement. The main concern is that it increases the risk of death for the child, either by being smothered or from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Advocates of the practice say that when done correctly, sharing a bed helps parents — particularly nursing mothers — bond with their infants and even get a better night's sleep.
Read on for two views on the topic.
Bed-sharing is dangerous and should be avoided in the interest of the baby's safety.
Dr. Marian Willinger is the special assistant for SIDS at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
There's simply no scientific evidence that says bed-sharing is safe. There is scientific evidence, though, that bed-sharing increases the risk for SIDS, as well as the child's risk of suffocation. The baby can be overlain by the parent, they can get entrapped between the mattress and the box spring or under the pillow, or they can be suffocated by heavy bedding.
A baby is diagnosed as dying from SIDS if — after a complete review of the medical history, an autopsy and examination of the death scene — no other cause of death can be found. Studies have found that the risk of SIDS increases anywhere from two to tenfold when parents bed-share, depending on the bed-sharing situation and the age of the baby. We don't know exactly why that is, but we do know that babies who die of SIDS often have brainstem deficits associated with their ability to regulate their breathing and heart rate, specifically when faced with reduced carbon dioxide and elevated temperatures. In a bed-sharing environment, given that the baby is sleeping with other bodies and potentially with blankets, we can hypothesize that SIDS would be consistent with these potential environmental stresses.
When we talk about the potential risk for overlay, entrapment and suffocation, it's a little more clear-cut. Parents can't always be awake and can't always be watching their baby. Babies have very compressible chests when they're little, as well as tiny little heads and tiny noses and tiny mouths. If these get covered, it's very dangerous.
In our day and age, when everybody is working just to make ends meet and new parents don't have a lot of time to spend with their baby, I completely understand that there are a lot of reasons why parents would want to bring their baby in bed. And that's fine, as long as they're awake. When it's time for the parent or the baby to go to sleep, the baby needs its own separate place.
The best sleeping environment for babies is to have their bed or crib in the parents' room. We don't really know why, but we do have evidence that room-sharing reduces the risk of SIDS. It's good for the baby and a wonderful way to bond.
But bed-sharing is dangerous. I've seen what SIDS or overlaying has done to the families of parents who have overlain their children — some families do well and some families fall apart. But I can tell you one thing, they never forget that baby. I know that there are bed-sharing advocates that say they've always done this and they've never lost a baby, but this is about probabilities.
When parents and babies share a bed, it promotes bonding, good sleep and wellness for the whole family.
Dr. William Sears is a pediatrician in Dana Point and the author of the book "The Baby Sleep Book: The Complete Guide to a Good Night's Rest for the Whole Family."
What I tell patients is that the best place for a baby to sleep is wherever the parents and baby get the best night's sleep. Research has shown, though, that it's best for babies to be within sensory distance from mom, so they could be in a co-sleeper that's attached to or near the bed, or safely placed in the bed with the parents. I don't think bed-sharing is right for everyone, but I do think that it can be very beneficial.
First of all, bed-sharing makes nighttimebreast-feedingeasier.Breast-fedbabies wake up more often, since breast milk is digested faster. When a baby and mother share a bed, the mother often wakes up just when, or even just before, the baby is ready to wake up, and she is able to easily nurse the baby with a minimal disruption to her own sleep. Babies get more milk this way, which helps them thrive. Many moms even find that despite the baby waking up more to breastfeed, both baby and mother are better rested.
Many mothers also work outside the house during the day. When they share a bed with their babies at night, it gives them the closeness and touch that they miss during the day. That is also beneficial to the baby's development.
Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have even speculated that bed-sharing may have a protective mechanism. Because of what might be an increased sensitivity to one another in a bed-sharing situation, the mother may instinctively awaken if the baby's breathing changes.
There are some potential downfalls to parents and babies sleeping separately. When a baby is unattended to at night or sleeps apart from its mother, its stress hormones may become higher. When the baby has high stress hormones, it depletes the immune system, raises the heart rate and can even damage the brain, particularly since babies don't yet have the cerebral maturity to detoxify excess stress hormones.
When babies and moms are closer together, on the other hand, the baby's stress hormones have been shown to go down and its oxygen intake is more stable.
Not all parents should bed-share. Parents who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol should not sleep in the same bed with their babies, nor should very obese parents or parents who smoke. Mothers, who have a heightened awareness of the baby, should sleep next to the infant while bed-sharing rather than fathers, and no baby-sitters, aunts, uncles or other caregivers should bed-share. Parents should not sleep with their infants on a couch, beanbag or water bed — only a safe, firm mattress with light bedding and no excess pillows, stuffed animals or throws.