Bed Sharing

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated May 1, 2013.

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Despite the fact that many health practitioners recommend babies and parents not sleep together in the same bed, as well as “research” showing it to be dangerous, new parents face internal conflict as they either accidentally fall asleep at times with their baby or consciously choose to bed share.  Research shows that 44-68% of breastfed babies will sleep with their mothers at least some of the time during the first nine months. 1  In these circumstances there is a tremendous lack of information of how to do so safely.  Just as important, too, is the current research going on around the world that shows that bed sharing, when done safely, is safer than babies sleeping in a crib/cot. 2

Why is there concern about bed sharing?

Historical concerns over bed sharing have centered around the belief that babies are at a greater risk of death through smothering or SIDS.  And there are certainly unsafe ways to bed share, including sleeping on a couch or other very soft surface; using covers that are too heavy or are pulled over baby’s head; and falling asleep together after using alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs whether they are social, prescription, or OTC. Smoking, for example, has a direct correlation with SIDS deaths in babies.  And avoiding the combination of smoking and bed sharing reduces the risk of SIDS. 3  Situations such as these are extremely dangerous and care should be taken so that a baby is never put in these circumstances.

Safe Bed Sharing reduces SIDS

On the other hand, bed sharing can be done quite safely, especially when it is not accidental and the circumstances are planned for a baby’s safety. We know that when mothers and babies sleep together, a mother’s carbon dioxide that she breathes out helps to stimulate her baby’s breathing patterns.  Mothers and babies must be in close proximity for this to occur – side by side – and not just with mother in bed and baby in a side sleeper cot.  It seems that a mother’s breathing provides a back-up plan for a baby’s breathing in case his should falter. [4.. McKenna, JJ. (2007) Sleeping with your baby – A parent’s guide to cosleeping. Washington, D.C.: Platypus Media.] Thus, safe bed sharing is actually protective against SIDS!

How to Safely Share Your Bed with Your Baby

There are several components that must all be met for bed sharing to be done safely:

  • Exclusive breastfeeding – bed sharing should only take place with exclusively breastfed babies and their mothers
  • No smoking, alcohol, or drugs – Ever.  Make sure no one in the home smokes or uses any drugs/alcohol that can cause drowsiness or altered consciousness
  • Parents in agreement – Don’t bed share if either the mother or father disagree and don’t want the baby in bed with them.
  • Safe space – The adult bed must be a safe space for baby with a flat, firm surface (no water beds, couches, recliners, etc.), no cracks baby could fall in, and no covers, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, etc. that could smother baby.
  • No pets or children in bed – The only people in bed should be breastfeeding mother, baby, and father.  Pets and other children should not be in bed with your baby is sharing your bed.
  • Maternal “curl” to protect baby – Research shows that mothers who sleep with their babies do so in a protective way – their legs/knees tuck in under baby’s feet and arm is around baby’s head; baby is at breast level on his side or back.  This “curl” around baby helps protect him from rolling off the bed or others rolling on him.  This protective posture, along with breathing patterns and sleep rhythms that help a mother and baby’s sleep/wake cycle to synchronize together,  provide added protection when a breastfeeding mother and baby sleep together. 4

Benefits of Bed Sharing

Most breastfeeding moms will fall asleep while nursing their baby from time to time.  This should be considered a good thing as safe bed sharing provides many benefits.

  • Growth and Development – Lots of physical touch is important for a baby’s neurological growth and development.  Breast milk is low in fat and high in lactose; it is easily digested by babies and they depend on constant human contact for milk and physical touch.  Compared to other mammals, human babies are “preemies” and need lots of human bonding and touch. 5 Sleeping together provides many more opportunities for babies to have the nearly continuous physical touch they need.
  • Milk Supply – When mothers and babies sleep together, babies can breastfeed more freely. The hormones of skin-to-skin contact as well as frequent breastfeeding increase and help maintain a strong milk supply for a nursing mother.
  • Longer breastfeeding duration – Breastfeeding mothers who bed share will nurse their babies longer than those who do not. 6 This makes sense.  Mothers and babies are able to nurse as well as get sleep.  Exhaustion is a major reason mothers supplement with formula and with the known and well-documented risks of formula it is a good idea to create a safe sleeping environment so exclusive breastfeeding can continue rather than turning to alternative feeding methods.
  • Encourages instinctual parenting – Mothers who practice safe bed sharing have lower stress levels, get more sleep, have enhanced attachment and parental fulfillment, and can more easily provide for their babies innate needs (touch, nearly constant feeds, temperature regulation, sleep, etc.) 7

Bed sharing provides an wonderful environment to take care of a baby’s innate needs throughout the night while also allowing a new mother to get rest.  Care should be taken to make sure there is a safe and comfortable environment for both mom and baby when they do bed share. Significant risk factors for bed sharing, including smoking, should be well-known and strongly discouraged at all times.  And parents should be given all the facts to make an informed decision.  Bed sharing doesn’t have to have the negative stigma attached to it that it does so many times today.  When parents make an informed decision, plan in advance, and ensure to do it in a safe way, bed sharing can be a wise solution for breastfeeding, sleep, and a new baby.

Whether it is everyday or only on occasion, your baby’s safety is important enough to always maintain a safe sleeping environment.

Here are further articles about why it’s important to breastfeed at nightbreastfeeding and sleep and co-sleeping with your baby.

To read more about bed sharing and breastfeeding from La Leche League International, click here.

Show 7 footnotes

  1. McKenna, JJ. (2007) Sleeping with your baby – A parent’s guide to cosleeping. Washington, D.C.: Platypus Media.
  2. http://medicalxpress.com/news/2013-04-bedsharing-debate.html
  3. ISIS (Infant Sleep Information Source) accessed 5 October 2013 via www.isisonline.org.uk/where_babies_sleep/parents_bed/
  4. McKenna, JJ. (2007) Sleeping with your baby – A parent’s guide to cosleeping. Washington, D.C.: Platypus Media.
  5. McKenna, JJ. (2007) Sleeping with your baby – A parent’s guide to cosleeping. Washington, D.C.: Platypus Media.
  6. McKenna, JJ. (2007) Sleeping with your baby – A parent’s guide to cosleeping. Washington, D.C.: Platypus Media.
  7. McKenna, JJ. (2007) Sleeping with your baby – A parent’s guide to cosleeping. Washington, D.C.: Platypus Media.
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