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Controversy Corner

The Co-Sleeping Debate

Mother & baby sleeping togetherCo-sleeping (the practice of bringing baby into the parental bed at night-time) is a bit of a social taboo in the UK, even though 20 – 30% of parents with babies under 1 year will be doing it tonight. As in so many areas of parenting, opinions on the best approach to sleeping habits tend to fluctuate between extremes. Most parents in the Western world opt for a separate cot in a nursery however, taking their lead from more traditional practices, there is a significant and growing proportion of the parenting population who believe that having baby sleep in the parental bed is beneficial for all involved. Not only that, but they also believe very strongly that isolating a baby in their own room away from other human contact is bad for a child’s well-being. Below we have presented the main arguments for and against co-sleeping to help you make up your own minds.

Topic: Your Comments on The Co-Sleeping Debate

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The Co-Sleeping Debate

9th Aug 2010 midwifevalerie
There are many benefits to co-sleeping, which is the norm in much of the world. Video studies have shown that parents move around their baby so if you follow the safety advice of not bed-sharing if you or your partner smoke, have consumed drugs or alcohol maybe co-sleeping is a good option - it is particularly beneficial when breastfeeding. There are good books on the subject: "The Family Bed", "Three In A Bed" and "The Continuum Concept".

However Unicef/FSID state that the safest place for a baby is in a cot or basket next to the mother's bed for the first six months.

I think it is for parents to decide what is best for them; some feel that bed-sharing offers the best way for the family to get sleep and others feel that they could not sleep with their baby in bed - neither option is wrong. I say listen to what your heart tells you is right for you and then don't worry what other people say!

Valerie Gommon
Independent Midwife

View all comments and add your own opinion! »

The Prosecution

The Case Against Co-Sleeping

The Main One: It’s Risky

The main criticism of co-sleeping is that it increases the risk of cot death. The proximity of baby to their parents, and potentially a heavy duvet, can increase the chance of over-heating. There is also an increased risk of suffocation should one or other parent roll onto the baby in their sleep, and there is also the possibility that baby may fall out of bed.

Towards the end of last year, the media sensationalised the findings of Professor Peter Fleming (perhaps the world’s leading authority on cot death), who published a study that showed that 54% of cases of cot death occurred in co-sleeping situations. What was less well publicised was that the majority of these deaths occurred where one or both parent had been drinking alcohol or taking drugs, and/or had been co-sleeping on a sofa or somewhere other than in bed. When common-sense precautions were taken, co-sleeping was statistically no riskier than when baby slept alone.

Despite this – or perhaps because of it - the stance of The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) remains that the safest place for a baby is in a cot in the parents’ bedroom.

Baby & Mother Get More Sleep

Co-sleeping babies usually wake and feed more often during the night, and some parents find that their bed-movements wake baby up and vice versa, resulting in neither baby nor parent sleeping as deeply as they might do separately. A baby who has had a good night’s sleep is more likely to be happy in the daytime – and the same logic applies to mums too.

More of Your Own Time

Co-sleeping babies will often need help settling to sleep, either by feeding to sleep or simply having the presence of their mother nearby, and if they wake to find her gone they can need mum’s (or dad's) presence again to get back to sleep. This whole process often robs parents of that sacred evening time when they can do do non baby-related things such as chatting and catching up with each other, or simply seeing friends or reading a book. All things that are an important part of staying sane! A baby that sleeps in its own cot usually learns how to settle itself to sleep and re-settle themselves again when they come into light sleep without parental help.

More Intimate Mum & Dad Time

On a similar theme, and perhaps a more common argument against co-sleeping, is the imposition that a child in bed might make on more adult night-time activities. Whilst this is undoubtedly true for anyone bound to the bed, it has been pointed out that these activities can take place in a variety of locations...

No Need to Wean off Bed-Sharing

That children like sleeping with their parents is a given. Co-sleepers typically suggest that your child will want to go into their own bed when they are ready – often around the age of 2 years. However if you co-sleep and decide the time has come for your child to move into their own bed before they do, you may find it a difficult transition to accomplish.

The Defence

The Case For Co-Sleeping

Better Emotional Health

In some studies which tracked the longer term effects of co-sleeping and sleeping alone (Crawford, Forbes, Heron, Keller), the children who slept with their parents tended to be happier, less anxious and had higher self-esteem. They were also less likely to be afraid of sleep, had fewer behavioural problems and were generally more independent as adults.

Babies Who Cry to Sleep get Stressed

Psychiatrist Michael Commons has published research showing that when babies are left alone to cry themselves to sleep, they release increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol which he suggests can cause physical changes in the brains of infants. “It makes you more prone to the effects of stress, more prone to illness, including mental illness, and makes it harder to recover from illness,” he concludes.

Stronger Immune Systems

James McKenna, leading anthropologist and sleep researcher, suggests that because babies who sleep with their mothers are usually breast-fed through the night (typically twice as often as those that sleep alone), they experience less illness due to the increased immunological benefits of breastfeeding.

Reduces Risk of Cot-Death

Babies are at most risk of cot-death between 1 and 6 months when they begin to sleep more deeply, but their cardiopulmonary regulating system may not be well-formed enough yet for the breathing centres in the brain to re-start breathing when baby is in deep sleep. Some experts suggest that because co-sleeping babies spend less time in deep sleep, they are less likely to suffer from cot-death. Furthermore, co-sleeping parents often find that their baby’s breathing becomes ‘in-rhythm’ with their own, and there is evidence to suggest that a parent’s breathing acts as a kind of ‘pace-maker’ which can help to re-start their baby’s breathing, should it stop.

Baby Falls and Stays Asleep Better

When falling asleep in a parent’s arms, or physically close to their parent, a baby learns that going to sleep is a pleasant experience. Many babies under 1 year do not have a concept of object permanence, meaning that when mummy leaves the room, they do not understand that she still exists elsewhere. This can be a stressful experience for baby and make falling asleep difficult and full of crying. Having a parent near when they come into light sleep during the night provides baby with reassurance that it is OK to go back to sleep and they are less likely to fully awaken.

Mum Gets a Better Quality of Sleep

Although co-sleeping babies usually feed more through the night than their isolated counterparts, mother and baby tend to be in-sync with their sleep patterns, and as a result come into light sleep at the same time, so mum barely has to wake up to feed baby. When baby sleeps in a separate room, a night time awakening can often rouse mother from a deep sleep, which is the most restful kind of sleep, and causes not only exhaustion from interrupted sleep, but also a resentful attitude which is not conducive to returning to sleep. After lying baby back to sleep in a separate bed, it can often take mum a long time to get back to sleep because her body has to re-enter a restful state, and her mind is full of worry about the baby sleeping or waking up again.

Although views on which approach is best differ greatly, everyone wants their children to grow up happy, healthy and well-adjusted. In the end, all children are different, and it seems that some families are suited to co-sleeping whilst others are not. Whether you co-sleep or have your child sleep in their own room does not define you as a good or bad parent, so don’t let anyone else tell you what is right for you – read the research and the commentaries, try out what appeals to you (safely), and make up your own mind.


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