A friend of mine believes that it’s beneficial for mom, dad, and baby to sleep together. She even claims that it can prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and provide other health benefits. What’s your opinion of the “family bed?”
We don’t recommend it. Though advocates of co-sleeping are enthusiastic about the supposed benefits of the practice – for example, they claim that it gives infants a greater sense of security and comfort and eliminates the need for parents to get out of bed for midnight feedings – most reputable family counsellors and child development experts advise against it. They have a number of sound reasons for taking this position.
It’s not clear where your friend came up with the idea that the “family bed” prevents sudden infant death syndrome. The best research indicates that the exact opposite is true. Recent studies suggest that the risk of SIDS may actually be higher in these situations because adult bedding materials are not safe for sleeping newborns. As a matter of fact, an article published in the Journal of Pediatrics asserted that the risk of suffocation increases 20-fold when babies are placed in adult beds rather than in their own cribs. Critics have also raised concerns about the possibility of parents rolling over and crushing or smothering their baby.
The “family bed” poses other problems too. Babies have a different sleep cycle than older children and adults, and for this reason the presence of a newborn child in the bed can be disruptive to parents’ sleep. As they pass through different REM phases, infants tend to move around and make noises. It’s easy to assume that they’re waking up when they really aren’t. That’s not to mention that some individuals simply don’t sleep soundly when they have “visitors.” If mom and dad can’t get the rest they need, their mood, concentration levels, frustration threshold, and ability to parent effectively will be negatively impacted the following day. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the theory that, once established, the habit of co-sleeping can be hard to break. It can actually become a commitment of many years if children are reluctant to transition out of their parents’ bed.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of marital intimacy. If mom and dad are equally enthusiastic about having a new bed-mate, that’s fine. But many new parents aren’t prepared for the demands that a new baby can place on them. This is especially true in the case of a mother who has little energy left for relations with her husband at the end of an exhausting day. Here at Focus on the Family Canada we stress that the parents’ marital relationship should always take precedence over the parent-child relationship. One of the best things you can do for your child is maintain a close, healthy marriage. Couples who are looking to resume sexual activity after a pregnancy won’t find the “family bed” particularly conducive to their design. It’s not easy to be romantic with a kid or two in bed beside you.
We agree with those pediatricians and child development experts who maintain that children need to learn to fall asleep by themselves in their own crib or bed. But that doesn’t mean that we’re opposed to closeness between parent and child. Far from it. In some cases it can be helpful to keep a baby in a bassinet next to the parents’ bed for the first few months of his or her life. And you can always get the benefits of the “family bed” experience by snuggling with your child in bed after everyone is awake in the morning.
For more information about the best sleep arrangements for your child, we highly recommend the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by pediatrician and child sleep expert Dr. Marc Weissbluth.