Why We Decided To Let Our Baby Sleep In Our Bed

Is cosleeping a good idea, or does it increase the risk of SIDS?

October 2, 2015
co-sleeping
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHERYL ZIBISKY

When my first daughter was born, my wife and I were living in a 400-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn. The only way to squeeze the crib in was to arrange the bedroom so that you had to crawl across the bed to get to it. Having to get to her for feedings and diaper changes both during the day and at night was enough of a hassle that we quickly decided it might be best to let her sleep in the bed with us. 

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But first, of course, we wanted to make sure it wasn’t dangerous. What if we were exhausted and rolled onto her in the middle of the night? What about our blankets and pillows? Could they accidentally suffocate her? And what about SIDS? We’d been told repeatedly, both during pregnancy and in the hospital after the birth, that children should always sleep on their backs, in a crib free from any stuffed animals or other things (save a pacifier) to decrease the risk of SIDS. Though the risk is low (affecting less than one out of every 1,000 children) it’s a terrifying syndrome, especially since it has no known causes. We had heard that cosleeping was also considered a risk factor, and yet we had, living in the very baby-centric neighborhood of Park Slope, met a lot of proponents of bed sharing.

We consulted our pediatrician, who assured us that as long as we weren’t drinking or taking medication, it was pretty safe: “Mammals have been sleeping next to their babies since the dawn of time,” he said. We weren’t likely to roll over on our daughter.

So we gave it a shot. For the first three months or so, we all slept in the bed together. The first couple nights I dozed pretty lightly, still slightly worried about turning over, but I quickly got used to it, and in the end we all slept much better than we had in the first couple weeks. Night feedings happened without anyone needing to stand up, and I could decide if a diaper had to be changed (my share of the evening responsibilities) just by reaching over, which was a bonus.

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Oddly, it remained a controversial choice. Though we chose to share our bed mostly for practical reasons, many friends and family commended us for the close bonds we were surely developing in the middle of the night. Others castigated us for endangering the baby and pointed to advice by the American Academy of Pediatrics, such as this article "Bed Sharing Remains Greatest Risk Factor for Sleep Related Infant Deaths," which suggested we could wake up at any moment to our worst nightmare. The only place a baby is safe, we were informed, is on its back, in a crib, with nothing around.

Eventually we moved to a bigger apartment, where our daughter got her own room. She went back into the crib and then later to her own bed.  But just this last year, we had a second child and had to decide again whether to share our bed. This time, however, there’s a great book by Alice Callahan, called The Science Of Mom. Callahan, who had her first baby the same year we did, has approached a number of controversial parenthood issues, including vaccines, breastfeeding, and bed sharing, by looking carefully at the scientific research. She shared some of her findings on a recent episode of NPR’s Weekend Edition. It turns out that some of the studies back up what my pediatrician told us the first time: While it’s true that sleep-related infant deaths happen more often when parents and children fall asleep together, many of those studies don’t account for parents that have been drinking, taking medication that makes them drowsy, or sleeping in places other than a bed (falling asleep in a chair, for instance, or on a couch). 

In studies where those risk factors are accounted for, bed sharing (or cosleeping) doesn’t appear to be any riskier than letting a child snooze in his or her own bed. However, as Callahan’s book makes clear, the science still isn’t conclusive. 

Ultimately, we chose, again, to let our daughter sleep in the bed with us for a short period of time. As she’s getting older (and more able to sleep through the night), we’ll start to let her sleep in her own bed. Many parents around the world sleep in the same beds as their kids for years. And many parents wouldn’t want to do it for even a night. Though it made sense for us to cosleep when our daughters were very young, I don’t feel like it has affected my ability to bond with either daughter to have them sleep in their own beds—I don’t love them any more or less now than I did when they slept next to me, and we all get plenty of time to cuddle while we’re awake. But I’m glad that we did share our bed, if even for a brief period And because we were careful about how we did it—not drunk, not on medication, not in a chair or on the couch, and without a lot of heavy blankets or extraneous pillows around—I’m also confident that it didn’t present unnecessary harm to our children. Though, when my first daughter moved to her own bed, I’ll admit that a part of me was relieved that nothing dangerous had happened.

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