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To Co-sleep or Not?

sok_ribbon.pngBoth of my babies spent most of the night with me as newborns. They lay swaddled at my side and I scooted them over to breastfeed and doze — it helped us all sleep. The bassinet worked better after two months, and then on to separate rooms. Even in the toddler years, though, my son occasionally ended up with us if he was sick.

In other words, my family, like most, opted for some combination of independent sleep and bed-sharing. You might find that not many people label their family as “co-sleeping,” but that with some probing it turns out a good percentage of families actually do tote their little ones to bed once in awhile. The incidence of co-sleeping has been on the rise in the U.S. (and is high throughout the world), with around half of families reporting at least occasional bed-sharing and about a quarter of families making a regular practice of it.

Whether you should co-sleep depends on how it works for you. If your baby, you, and your partner are sleeping well and feeling rested (newborn wakings notwithstanding) and you’re doing it safely, then great.  As with most aspects of parenting, there isn’t one right way. But here are some points to consider when you’re trying to find the right sleep arrangements for your family:

Reasons to Consider Co-sleeping:

You’re not spoiling your child
Sharing a bed with your child is about as natural a practice as it gets. No doubt for most of evolution, humans have slept close to their moms and dads and continue to do so in many cultures. So the notion that co-sleeping is bad for your child’s psyche or might make him clingier or dependent doesn’t make sense.

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Sleeping together may have physiological benefits
Since the close proximity of mom and baby is the evolutionary norm, it’s no surprise that studies have found both parties interact biologically at night in a way that might be beneficial. For example, babies sleeping next to mom spend less time in deep sleep (stages three and four), and have more arousals during those deep sleep stages than babies in cribs. More light sleep and heightened arousal may protect against SIDS. Babies and moms sleeping together also “overlap” in their sleep patterns, moving into stages of light and deep sleep together and waking at similar times to stay in sync throughout the night.

Breastfeeding increases
Being next to mom gives the breastfeeding relationship a boost, probably due to more frequent arousals, light sleep, and mom’s smell. If you’re establishing breastfeeding with your newborn, bed sharing can help.

If you can figure out how to nurse lying down, your sleep will improve because you can do both at once. This can be especially helpful in the first month or two of your baby’s life, when frequent night wakings and breastfeeding are common. Even if you don’t nurse in a reclined position, co-sleeping still means that you don’t have to get out of bed for feedings.

Touch and time together
You and your baby bond in large part through touch; physical contact helps infants thrive both physically and psychologically. Especially if you have a busy schedule, you may notice sleeping with your child helps the two of you feel connected.

It’s just for now, not forever
Especially in the first month or two, a lot of parents find that having baby in the bed for some portion of the night makes life a lot easier. And let’s face it, some newborns simply won’t sleep in their own bassinets or cribs.

If co-sleeping works for you and your child, don’t worry about what the future holds. Just remember that while some kids move to their own beds smoothly and gradually, other require a more firm and decisive stance from the parent to make the switch. But as long as you’re consistent and decisive when you change to independent sleep, your child will adjust.

Reasons to Consider Separate Beds:

Safety
The main reason bed-sharing is considered a no-no in some circles is its safety hazard potential. Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend not sharing a bed with babies and little kids. True, if you’re sharing sleep with your baby, there are plenty of dangers to consider, like pillows, lose blankets, soft mattresses, and the potential to roll over on her.

But most studies seem to indicate that it’s not co-sleeping per se that’s risky, it’s that other safety precautions easily go out the window when you share a sleep surface. Even though bed sharing does seem to raise the risk of harm to baby, it may be the unsafe practices around bed sharing (like having baby near loose blankets or soft bedding) that is to blame. Maternal smoking is one of the biggest risk factors when combined with co-sleeping. If and when you do sleep with your baby, it’s vital to follow safe sleeping practices.

Lighter sleep for you
It’s probably just fine for your baby to spend more time in light sleep, but you might find it uncomfortable with her beside you — especially if you’re worried about safety. Some moms wake up too much and sleep too lightly to get a good night’s rest while co-sleeping.

You have the last word
Bonding and nighttime responsiveness is nice, but in the end, you are the parent and you get to make the final call. Adults need 7-8 hours of sleep, and children close to 12. That should be a household priority. If bed-sharing is getting in the way, take a firm stance and make a change to separate beds. Your child may not like it at first, but with consistency and loving but strong boundaries, she will adjust.

Remember your alone time
If you co-sleep, will you have time in the evenings alone or with your partner? If your baby has a hard time sleeping without you, you may find yourself in the trap of lying down with her to fall asleep (and maybe dozing off yourself) and then realize it’s hard to get away and have evening adult time. If being kid-free for some time at night is important to you, consider separate beds at least at the beginning of the night.

Consider your partner’s needs
Co-sleeping affects everyone, so in the end, it’s a family decision. Check in with your partner to make sure the sleep set up works for all of you.

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