There’s a lot of underground co-sleeping going on these days. The incidence of bed-sharing is on the rise in the U.S., and while most parents say that their baby sleeps separately at night, when researchers ask more specific questions, it turns out that roughly half of moms and dads actually do sleep with their babies at least occasionally.
The fact that bed-sharing is considered a no-no (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against it), but the majority of families do it is a problem. Why? Because we end up not talking enough about how to co-sleep safely and happily. Whether or not you decide to sleep with your child, it helps to know how to do it successfully if and when it does happen.
Make it a family decision
Even if you only co-sleep occasionally, make sure you talk about it with your partner, so that you’re both on the same page about how to share a bed safely. With a brand new baby, parents often don’t intend to co-sleep but end up that way in the middle of the night. As much as possible, make a conscious decision to knowingly and responsibly co-sleep, or don’t do it at all. The in-between setup can be dangerous – all parties need to know if your swaddled little friend will be at your side in the wee hours.
Put baby on her back
To lower the risk of SIDS, the same back-to-sleep principle applies when co-sleeping. If you breastfeed while lying down and your baby is on her side, make sure you return her to her back after she’s finished eating.
Make a safe sleep surface
Your mattress should be firm, not soft or quilted, with tightly fitted sheets over it. Use only one pillow (ideally a firm one), and a cotton blanket away from your baby’s face. Sleep on the edge of your pillow and scoot it away from your baby. You can also put your baby higher up on the bed (make sure there is no gap or place for her to become wedged) and move your pillows down a bit so you sleep slightly lower than your baby.
Check the perimeter
In many cases of infant deaths in an adult bed, the baby has become wedged in between the mattress and another surface, like a piece of furniture, the wall, or a headboard. Pull your bed away from side tables, and make sure there are no gaps around the sleep surface that she could fall into. A lot of families find that the best position for baby is on the side of mom, not in the center, since mom is often more responsive in the middle of the night. If you routinely co-sleep, consider the exemplary setup: Pull the mattress off the bed frame and away from the walls into the center of the room.
Don’t smoke or drink
Both maternal and paternal smoking during pregnancy or after birth are major risk factors for infant deaths. If you smoked when you were pregnant, or you do now, you should use a co-sleeper or bassinet instead of sharing the sleep surface with your baby. Drinking or drugs will make you less responsive at night. If you or your partner drink or take medications at night, don’t bring your baby into bed.
Lower the temperature
Keeping the room cool (around 65-68 degrees) is recommended for lowering the risk of SIDS. Sleeping next to your baby will raise her body temperature, so keep that in mind when you’re gauging the room temperature. In fact, cooler environments make for better adult sleep as well, so a lower temperature is better for everyone.
Dress yourself and baby well
Wear a long-sleeve shirt and dress your baby in a night outfit in which she doesn’t need a blanket. That way you can keep the covers safely down, and your arms won’t get cold.
Managing night feedings
Babies sleeping next to mom spend less time in deep stages of sleep (stages three and four), and they also wake up more often. The close proximity of mom can make weaning more challenging, but it is possible. And remember, healthy babies are generally ready to go a full night with no milk at around six months of age (that doesn’t mean they necessarily have to).
If you choose to reduce your feedings, make a plan, be consistent, and your baby will adjust, even if she’s right next to you. For example, feed your baby at her regular times but gradually shorten the feedings by a minute at a time, or have your partner walk her around the room instead of feeding to soothe her. She certainly may protest, but if you’re clear, she’ll get the message.
If you’re breastfeeding while lying down, put your nursing pillow along your backside so you can be supported while you sleep and your baby eats. Keep the pillow in bed or near the edge of the bed so you can grab it easily.
Invest in a big bed
If you can afford it, and especially if co-sleeping is routine in your house, you may want to consider buying a king-sized bed. Anyone who has slept with a little one knows that stretched out or perpendicular positions and lots of midnight kicking are common – the more space everyone has, the better night’s sleep you’ll get.