Ask a new parent what they most desire at any given moment and you are likely to get the same answer: sleep.
While sleep is something that you may not have given much thought to before, suddenly becomes an obsession. How much are you getting? How can you get more? That’s because although babies are adorable, they are also major sleep inhibitors, and you can’t possibly comprehend how much the lack of sleep will affect you until you are in the thick of it.
So, how can you ensure that you and your baby are getting as much shut-eye as possible? Well, it depends on who you ask. Last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new recommendation that includes “room-sharing without bed-sharing” for at least 6 months, but “ideally for a year.” This recommendation was made in an effort to reduce the risk of every parent’s worst nightmare — sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Now, there is a new study out that may change some minds about room-sharing after 4 months of age. The man who authored the study, Dr. Ian Paul, is a pediatrician who – after analyzing surveys from 230 first-time mothers – found that babies slept for longer stretches of time (45 minutes, on average) in their own rooms, away from their parents. Paul told NPR why he wanted to perform the study:
“It’s important for the Academy to have strong evidence and not just expert opinion to support our recommendations because these guidelines have such influence on practice and on parenting and child health,” Paul says. “One of the reasons we wanted to explore this is that the evidence is really weak for 6 to 12 months. I think in [the Academy’s] strong desire to prevent every single case of SIDS, they have looked at the data with a biased perspective.”
The thing is, there are many factors that need to be considered. Evidence shows that room-sharing for 3 to 6 months is beneficial for preventing SIDS, but there is not much data that shows benefits beyond that time. In fact, 9 out of 10 of SIDS deaths occur before the age of 6 months, with the majority happening between 1 and 4 months.
The mental health of parents also needs to be considered. I know that the sleep deprivation I experienced was a huge trigger for my depression. Paul also points out that moving a child to their own room at 1 year of age may not make the most sense, given that this is often when separation anxiety peaks. “That’s the worst time to make a change from a developmental perspective.” Paul says.
According to the study, room-sharing after 4 months may even increase SIDS risk in other ways. “One of the surprising things we found was the room-sharing parents had less-safe sleep practices,” Paul says. The room-sharing infants were four times more likely to end up in their parents’ bed than those who slept in their own rooms. Also, the odds of risky items (blankets, stuffed animals, pillows) being in the infant’s sleep space doubled.
So, what’s a new parent to do? It comes down to common sense, and finding what works best for your family. All three of my boys were colicky, and difficult sleepers. I chose to room-share with them those first few months, because it was honestly easier for me given that I was nursing them so often. I am a very light sleeper, however, and have always opted to move them to their own rooms after 6 to 8 months. It was nerve-wracking at first, but I feel that being able to sleep more deeply made me a better mom. I know of families that have made different decisions. Some co-sleep, some room-share far beyond even the 1 year mark, and some sleep independently from their babies from the start. I slept in the living room with my second baby for a few months so my husband could sleep alone, since he was working and going to school.
There are always recommendations (sometimes ever-changing) and we all want to keep our infants as safe as possible. But there is also real life, and it can get complicated.
When I brought my new babies home, it was always somewhat terrifying to know that I was now responsible for this little human. My babies never wanted to sleep outside of my arms. I finally broke down and followed some advice I had read in a parenting book: babies could sleep swaddled – as long as it was a tight swaddle. This was the only thing that worked for us. But even with a slightly elevated crib mattress and baby swaddled, there were still some rough all-nighters. It wasn’t what I had imagined, but it led to a happier and more-rested baby and mom.
Remove the risky items, trust yourself and your instincts, and know that there will come a time when you will once again sleep through the night. You may even miss those late-night cuddles.