Is it really dangerous for your baby to sleep in the bed with you, as doctors warn? Are mothers and fathers who co-sleep with their kids bad parents? Can co-sleeping be compared to driving while drunk with your child? In the U.S., a growing number of moms and dads are bed-sharing. From 1993 to 2015, the practice has been multiplied by four, from about 6% to 24% - a new habit often hidden like a shameful secret in this country.
The co-sleeping trend goes against the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advice, which recommends avoiding bed-sharing at all times with a "full-term normal-weight infant younger than 4 months." The AAP says that co-sleeping poses risks of sleep-related deaths for babies, such as sudden infant death syndrome and accidental suffocation and strangulation - tragedies that cause the death of about 3,700 babies each year in the U.S. However, some research and statistics in this area give a different picture and some researchers think it might be time to reassess the strategy and rules to stop sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
As most parents know, many mothers have an instinct to sleep with their babies, who themselves have an even stronger instinct to sleep with mom and want to stay close to her as much as possible. "Human babies are contact seekers. What they need the most is their mother's and father's bodies. This is what's good for their physiology. This is what their survival depends on," says James McKenna, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, who has been studying infant sleep for 40 years.
Actually, bed-sharing with children is as old as our species itself. Homo sapien mothers and their infants have been sleeping together for more than 200,000 years, explains Mel Konner, an anthropologist at Emory University in Georgia. It's a tradition that continues to be common around the world and practiced in at least 40% of all documented cultures. In some extreme cases: Balinese babies are practically held constantly, day and night. Co-sleeping is also widespread in Japan. In contrast, Western culture has a long tradition of separating parents and babies at night.
To know more about it, McKenna and colleagues recruited dozens of mothers and babies and analyzed their bodies during their sleep, with remarkable findings. While a mother is breastfeeding, she naturally arches her body around her baby like a shell. In this position, babies hear their mom's heartbeat, synchronizing their own heartbeat to it. The babies also hear their mom's breathing, which has a similar rhythm to the sounds they heard in the womb, a very comforting environment for them.
In any case, the main question remains for parents who intend to sleep with their kids: How to keep this closeness as safe as possible? First, you should never sleep with a baby if you drink, smoke, or use drugs. Premature or underweight babies shouldn't sleep in your bed. Older kids should not sleep next to infants. Avoid too thick blankets and uncomfortable clothes. And always place infants on their backs to sleep.
According to Dr. Ed Mitchell, a pediatrician from the University of Auckland who has studied SIDS for more than 30 years, "For many babies, the risk of SIDS is very, very low to begin with." In their lifetime, babies are more likely to get struck by lightning than die of SIDS, even if you sleep with them (and especially if you take the precautions mentioned above).
Picture: Dad and baby co-sleeping (ChildUp & DALL-E - 2023)