Safe co-sleeping with you baby: benefits, risks and how to do it

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  • Co-sleeping has been a topic of debate for parents over the years, with convincing arguments both for and against. But at the end of the day, is it safe to co-sleep with your baby?

    Women co-sleeping with their babies for all sorts of reasons, says Melanie Every of The Royal College of Midwives. Whether it’s cultural, historical, comfort in the middle of the night (particularly when breastfeeding). She says, “The sensible approach is to advise mums of the safest way and explain which conditions really are a total no-go.”

    For some parents, co-sleeping is a great way to lull babies off to sleep and give you the opportunity to cement the bond between you and your baby, and provide a convenient opportunity if you’re looking to dream feed your baby. It might also be something that parents go to as a last resort if their baby isn’t sleeping, following problems from the baby’s second night. But with some sleep health concerns and a connection to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), is co-sleeping safe?

    Here’s what you need to know about safety and co-sleeping, with analysis by our child and medical experts.

    What is co-sleeping?

    Co-sleeping is the practice of parents and babies sleeping in the area for the night, not just for the purposes of comforting or feeding. Parents and carers may also choose to sleep with their babies elsewhere other than a bed, such as a sofa or day-bed. Approximately 90% of the world’s population does it, with many saying that co-sleeping is a natural and a comforting way of getting your baby to sleep, but others believe that co-sleeping is unsafe or not worth the risks.

    But there is a difference between simply bed sharing and co-sleeping. Bed sharing is when parents or carers share the same sleeping space as their parents, whereas co-sleeping means sleeping close to your baby but not necessarily in the same space, there are co-sleeping cots for example which attach to the adults’ bed.

    If your baby isn’t sleeping in a moses basket, or their own cot – or even their own bed, you may already be co-sleeping.

    Tips for parents who want to try co-sleeping

    Our medical expert, NHS GP and lifestyle medicine expert, Sonal Shah gives the following tips if you’re looking to try co-sleeping with your baby…

    • Keep your baby away from the pillows.
    • Make sure your baby can’t fall out of bed or become trapped between the mattress and wall.
    • Pull sheets and blankets away from your baby to avoid them over-heating or covering their face and obstructing their breathing.
    • A good tip is to try sleeping bags as an alternative to a blanket.
    • Avoid letting pets or other children into the bed at the same time.
    • Always put your baby to sleep on their back.
    • Never sleep with your baby on a sofa.

    What are the benefits of co-sleeping?

    mother and son co-sleeping

    Credit: Getty

    Author of The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland says, “When human babies are separated from their mum’s body, they cry. If they don’t get a response from her, they’ll be quiet. But this reaction is a survival technique, which is accompanied by fluctuations in breathing, temperature and heart rate.

    Margot notes that the immune system is also lowered and the digestive tract doesn’t work properly. “As soon as we put the baby back in skin-to-skin contact with the mother, all those things stabilise and wonderful feel-good chemicals are activated.

    “I’m trying to tell parents that they can make up their own minds about co-sleeping. They have a right to know what they’re doing to a child’s brain, that they’re either activating feel-good or stress chemicals.”

    Margot believes that co-sleeping should take place from birth as long as all the safety measures are followed properly. “Some babies may require less co-sleeping, and others may need more, depending on their temperament and sensitivity.

    “In the first five years of life, the separation distress system is very sensitive. But as children develop, some may feel secure aged 3, while others can still be in a state of alarm and screaming in distress at that age. This isn’t attention seeking; we know this is activating the pain system and separation distress alarm.

    “If we keep alarming the baby, the brain becomes over-sensitive and hard-wired and this is linked to stress, anxiety and depression.”

    Margot says that the emotional benefits for the mum mean the physical contact will activate oxytocin and opioids in her body and produce more breast milk. “She doesn’t have to get up every time her baby screams in the middle of the night; the baby reaches out and says, “Mum’s next to me. Phew, I’m safe.” The mother breastfeeds and the sleep cycle isn’t interrupted.

    “We do need to think about logistics such as private space and a couple’s sex life. It’s a good idea to set up a romantic place to make love, but not in the bed. And if you don’t like your child kicking next to you, buy a king-size bed. You wouldn’t deprive children of nourishing fruit and veg, so why deprive them of this natural feel-good activating sleep?”

    Margot has been a child psychotherapist for 20 years, as well as Director of Education and Training at London’s Centre for Child Mental Health and the author of several books on child mental health. Along with many others, she believes that putting a baby in bed with their parents from birth will help them grow into a calm, healthy adult. She says that separation from the parents is harmful, increasing stress hormones such as cortisol, which could cause depression later on.

    What are the risks of co-sleeping?

    co-sleeping baby in a moses basket

    Credit: Getty

    Maternity nurse Rachel Waddilove, author of The Baby Book, says, “Nothing makes me happier than seeing a baby well-fed, settled and tucked up for a deep sleep. They thrive on it. I’m not a scientist; I’m a practical girl coming from a completely different angle, mainly with the aim of helping parents.

    “There are a lot of downsides to co-sleeping. A baby will suckle on and off the breast all night, which is great for them when they’re tiny, but at some stage you’ve got to stop that. If you co-sleep up to 2, 3 or 4 years of age, a child will have a huge emotional anxiety about being taken away from his parents. And how would your relationship with your partner survive? It’s so important for couples to have time together.

    Rachel warns that there’s also a risk of smothering the baby or the baby over-heating. “If mums tell me they want to co-sleep, I explain the risks, and they don’t do it. These days, they say you should have the baby in your bedroom for the first year, but I think that’s crazy. All my clients put their little ones in their own room in the first month. There’s so much fear instilled in parents these days, but you just have to trust a bit and let life go on.

    “Experience tells me that babies sleep well when they’re swaddled, put in their cots and tucked up nice and tight with a full tummy. If you try for routine and four-hourly feeds and your baby’s a good size, by the time he’s a month old you won’t need to keep getting up in the night.

    “When a baby won’t sleep, I also use “shout it out” and controlled crying (allowing the baby to cry for a short while before going to him), which do work. I understand that a parent’s instinct is to immediately pick the baby up. But when I’m living with a family, I say, ‘Don’t jump up straight away; wait and see what happens.’ You aren’t doing any long-term damage; they’ll never remember it the next day and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. In fact, I’d say it takes a better parent to hold back a bit.”

    Rachel’s book, The Baby Book, has proven so popular that it sold out of its first print run. The eldest of six siblings, mum to three, grandmother of six and a maternity nurse since the 1960s, her CV has references from contented parents and babies, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin and their daughter, Apple.

    She believes that a baby should be put in their own cot, ideally in their own room, and a routine should be formed two weeks after birth.

    When should you not try co-sleeping?

    Luckily for those who want to try co-sleeping, there are clear guidelines on when you should try it and when you definitely shouldn’t. For example, parents shouldn’t try co-sleeping with their babies if they (either partner) smokes – even if they don’t do it in the bedroom. Here are the other conditions under which you should never try co-sleeping…

    When to not try co-sleeping:

    • Never co-sleep if parents have been drinking or taking drugs (including medication that might make you drowsy).
    • Never co-sleep if you feel excessively tired.
    • Never co-sleep with your baby if they have a fever or are otherwise unwell.

    As much as it might be tempting to have your baby close to you either to comfort yourself or them during the night, co-sleeping with your baby under these conditions can be seriously harmful. This is especially the case if your baby is sleeping in the same bed or space as you, rather than in a co-sleeping cot which is attached to the bed.

    What age is co-sleeping safe?

    While there is much debate over whether co-sleeping is actually safe, our experts says that as long as you provide the right environment, co-sleeping can be safe.

    But Sonal says there are some conditions to this. “It may not be safe however to sleep with premature babies (i.e those babies born before 37 weeks) or babies who were born with a low birth weight. It is also not safe to co-sleep with a baby if either parent smokes (even if they smoke outside of the bedroom) or if parents have consumed alcohol or drugs (even if this is prescription medication that makes them drowsy).”

    If you are unsure whether co-sleeping is safe for you discuss this with your GP, midwife or health visitor.

    How long should you co-sleep for?

    baby on mother's stomach

    Credit: Getty

    Much like co-sleeping itself, there is no agreed guidelines for how long parents should co-sleep for. “It is very much dependent on an individual’s circumstances.” Sonal advises, “Generally after 6-12 months, many parents move their child to their own cot, and even into their own room.”

    Does co-sleeping cause sleep problems?

    For the most part, co-sleeping won’t cause too many sleeping problems for the baby as they’ll (hopefully) be sound asleep. But Sonal says, it might be a different situation for the parents.

    “For some parents having a child next time can impact on the quantity and quality of their sleep and cause increased daytime sleepiness.”

    What about using a co-sleeping cot?

    mother and baby

    Credit: Getty

    There are a number of co sleeping cots on the market, which attach to your existing bed, enabling you sleep side-by-side with the baby. However, some current advice on what are also called bed nests or pods seems to caution against their use.

    As an example the Lullaby Trust – which raises awareness of SIDS – brings the importance of baby bed safety to our attention and does not recommend ‘that babies sleep on soft surfaces such as pods or nests’ and instead if parents do choose to co-sleep ‘the safest place is a clear space on a firm flat mattress the same as we would advise with a cot’.

    As with any other cot, it’s important to ensure that your cot meets the British Standards.

    What about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)?

    For a while it’s been known that co-sleeping can lead to many of the conditions linked with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, otherwise known as SIDS – such as over-heating, suffocation from duvets and pillows, and being close to parents who drink and smoke.

    But there are also strong arguments that say that co-sleeping improves the bond between parents and baby and makes breastfeeding easier.

    So, is co-sleeping a good idea?

    Co-sleeping is very much a personal choice, says our medical expert Sonal Shah. “For some parents it’s a natural way to connect with their baby and get to know them better. It allows parents to easily reassure a baby, and for some make feeding easier.”

    But Sonal agrees with Rachel that for others, it can causes issues. As she says, “Having a baby sleeping in the same bed can impact on their ability to get a good night’s sleep. It can also impact on relationships as well.”

    So much like many of the decisions parents and carers have to make when it comes to babies, it’s totally down to the parents choice and whether they feel comfortable. Your health visitor or GP is the best person to talk to when it comes to weighing up the factors involved.