Is Co-sleeping With Your Baby Beneficial or Not?

From the moment your little bundle of joy is placed in your arms, you're bombarded with an endless stream of advice from well-meaning friends, relatives, websites, books, and even strangers in the supermarket about the 'right' way to care for your newborn. One of the most hotly contested parenting decisions? The polarising practice of co-sleeping, with impassioned defenders and critics falling decidedly into the yay or nay camps.
On its surface, the concept of co-sleeping seems simple enough - parents and infants sleeping side-by-side, with parents often breastfeeding their child right there in the shared bed throughout the night. But dig a little deeper and you'll find the topic is far more complex, with potential benefits and risks that you must carefully weigh based on your circumstances and personal preferences.
Co-sleeping could be either in room sharing, bed sharing or surface sharing. While the room sharing setup doesn't tend to generate as much controversy or debate around advantages and disadvantages, bed sharing and surface sharing are often the more polarising configurations. On one side, proponents argue it fosters closeness, enhances bonding, and promotes better sleep for both parents and infants. On the other side, critics raise concerns about safety, sleep disruptions, and potential long-term impacts on child development. So, where does the truth lie in this controversial parenting practice? Should you co-sleep or not? Let's dig in.
  • Feeding Ease and Convenience: One of the biggest advantages to co-sleeping is pure practicality for nursing mothers. Instead of having to fully wake up, get out of bed, go to the nursery, pick up the baby, and then breastfeed several times throughout the night, mothers can simply roll over and nurse their infant, or enhance comfort by using a nursing chair, with minimal disruption to their sleep cycles. Cluster feeding is far easier since you don't have to leave the comfort of your cozy bed, and extremely fussy babies often nurse better from a relaxed, rested parent than an exhausted one forced out of bed every couple hours. This increased ease and convenience of breastfeeding can even translate to increased breastfeeding duration in many cases.
  • Promotes Bonding and Attachment: Those in favour of co-sleeping argue that it helps foster a stronger mutual attachment between parents and children. The close physical proximity and skin-to-skin contact provides opportunities for bonding that can enhance feelings of security, trust, and affection. Some attachment parenting experts even view co-sleeping as an inherited practice from our ancestors and contend that it's fundamentally natural for infants to be close to their caregivers both day and night rather than in separate rooms. This sense of security and trust in infancy can translate to more independence and confidence later in childhood.
  • Convenience and Practicality: Co-sleeping just tends to be very convenient for many families, especially in small homes or for single parents. Need to calm a fussy baby? No need to get up and go to another room - they're right there. Hear a noise and need to check on them? Don't even need to leave your bed. Not to mention that many co-sleepers claim it allows them to get more rest since they don't necessarily have to leave their bed to feed or comfort the baby in the night.
  • Prebiotics and Immune System Benefits: With baby sleeping inches from your face all night, you'd think co-sleeping would increase the chances of them catching a bug from you. But some research has shown the exact opposite — co-sleeping babies were exposed to more dust, dander, and germs, which in turn built up their immune system defenses much earlier and reduced their long-term risk of allergies and asthma. Breast milk from co-sleeping mothers was also found to have higher levels of prebiotics which help grow beneficial gut bacteria.
Now, those are some of the biggest reasons touted by co-sleeping advocates. But what's on the flip side of that coin?
  • Suffocation and SIDS Risks: This is the biggest and scariest one — infants sleeping in bed with parents face an increased risk of suffocation and SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Whether it's from parent rolling onto them in the night, loose blankets potentially obstructing breathing, or a fluffy comforter creating a pocket that cuts off their airflow, the prospect of accidentally smothering your baby is a terrifying and very real possibility. The risk is even greater when factoring in other contributors like parental obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption, and excessive fatigue.
  • Increased Night Waking and Poor Sleep Habits: While some babies sleep better with their parents, some other co-sleeping infants actually experience increased night wakings and fussiness because every little noise, movement, or change arouses them. Poor sleep can become a vicious cycle - overtired babies are crankier so parents bring them into bed to calm them down and help them sleep, but then the infant's disturbed sleep reinforces the fussy crankiness.
  • Less Intimacy and Sleep Disruption for Parents: One of the overlooked downsides of co-sleeping is the potential hit to intimacy and rest for the parents. It's harder to be physically affectionate as a couple, and exhaustion can steadily build up with all the sleep disruptions from the baby's movements, sounds, and awakenings. Sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on parents' physical and mental health in both the short and long term.
  • Risk of Injury and Falls: Babies can sustain injuries rolling off the bed or couch, getting wedged between mattresses and walls, or when parents attempt to co-sleep on bending couches and chairs that lack appropriate safety railings. Even well-meaning precautions like pushing the mattress against a wall can pose suffocation hazards. Simply put, bedrooms and beds aren't specifically designed for babies and present many potential accident triggers.
  • Developmental Hindrances and Interdependence: Some child development experts believe co-sleeping can enable overly dependent and clingy behaviors as children get older by thwarting the child's ability to learn independence during those critical phases. It may make transitioning to a 'big kid bed' harder. There's also a concern around children missing out on key physical and cognitive developmental milestones like learning to self-soothe or establishing healthy sleep habits and personal boundaries.
As you can see, this issue is far from black-and-white. There are persuasive arguments on both sides that force parents to weigh a number of personal factors when deciding whether to co-sleep or adopt a different sleep configuration. As with so many parenting issues, the 'right' answer depends entirely on your family's unique circumstances, preferences, and risk assessments. So, some of the key variables and scenarios that should influence your (family's) decision one way or the other are:
  1. Breastfeeding vs Formula Feeding: One of the biggest drivers for co-sleeping is the convenience and practicality it provides for nursing mothers who can breastfeed throughout the night without leaving their bed. For formula-feeding mothers, this key advantage is eliminated, so a separate consideration would need to be made around whether the family still wants to co-sleep for other reasons like bonding, cultural traditions, etc.
  2. Single vs Two-Parent Household: Single parents often find co-sleeping is an easier option for having the baby right there whenever they need attended to, especially for breastfeeding. But in a two-parent household, there's the potential for one parent to take over 'night duty' in a separate room while the other can get uninterrupted rest before swapping off childcare responsibilities. Having multiple caregivers makes coping with the lack of sleep a bit easier.
  3. Bed Configuration and Room Size: While co-sleeping has been practiced safely for centuries in many cultures by families with minimal living spaces, the reality is that larger modern beds in small rooms with minimal open floor space can make having a baby in the bed riskier. Cramped quarters increase the chances of injuring a baby by falling out of bed or having them get wedged against the wall or headboard. Simultaneously, larger beds with plenty of open space around them on all sides can present their own challenges around rolling/suffocation risks.
  4. Parent Sleep Habits and Physiques: How soundly you and/or your partner sleep plays a major role in whether co-sleeping is advisable. If either of you are restless sleepers who toss, turn, and move around frequently, an infant would logically be at much higher risk of suffocation. Similarly, obesity or physical limitations that make it harder to get up and down from bed swiftly to check on baby could pose issues. On the flip side, very light or inconsistent sleepers who are instantly awake and alert to their baby's every sound and movement actually fare better at minimising risk factors through attentiveness.
Ultimately, there's no universally right way. It comes down to carefully assessing your unique personal situation against the laundry list of co-sleeping pros and cons.
If you decide not to co-sleep, get a high-quality crib or high-quality cot for your baby; or a good children's bed for your toddler.
If you decide the benefits of co-sleeping outweigh the risks in your specific scenario, and decide to carry on with it, here's how you can ensure your baby's sleep environment is optimised for maximum safety;
  • Use a firm, tight-fitting mattress specifically designed for co-sleeping that tucks snugly into the bed frame and doesn't allow your baby to slip underneath or become trapped on the sides.
  • Secure the mattress by pushing it flush against a wall to prevent falls.
  • Use bed rails and mesh bumpers, or set the mattress directly on the floor if needed.
  • Clear the area around the bed of potential topple/fall hazards like nightstands, cords, climbable shelves and bureaus, etc.
  • Use only lightweight breathable fabrics in the sleep space with no loose sheets, pillows, blankets, quilts, or other plush objects that could potentially cut off baby's airflow.
  • Never co-sleep on couches, rocking chairs, or any excessively soft surfaces where baby could become wedged or sunken in cushions. Use co-sleeping beds and firm flat mattresses or surfaces only.
  • Never co-sleep under the influences of alcohol, medication, or sleep deprivation that makes you unaware of your baby's whereabouts or movements.
While some sleep consultants suggest room sharing for at least 6 months before moving babies to cots and transitioning into co-sleeping for toddler years, others advise keeping co-sleeping quarantined to the first waking and feeding windows of the morning before separating for overnight stretches. You could consider a middle ground by blending different combinations of room sharing, bassinets, co-sleepers that attach to beds, and safe co-sleeping to reap perceived benefits of closeness and breastfeeding while limiting risks.
At the end of the day, you need to weigh the key co-sleeping variables and do what feels right for your family situation based on your sleep environment, risk tolerance, and instincts. There's no single universal blueprint for good parenting. So long as you've thoroughly evaluated both sides of the debate, consulted trusted pediatricians and experts, and selected a sleep solution you feel optimises your child's safety and wellbeing, you're doing it right.
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