For many cultures around the world, safe co-sleeping, the act of parents sharing a bed with their children, is the most natural and obvious way to get some rest while bonding. But co-sleeping with a newborn or co-sleeping with a toddler in American families requires a different cultural context. Americans tend to live more geographically disparate lives, with an emphasis on independence and privacy. The environments and furnishings we use to raise our children also prompt unique safety concerns. In the context of the modern American family, what are the implications of parents who practice safe co-sleeping?
There is a tremendous amount information — and misinformation — out there, muddying the waters around safe co-sleeping and making it difficult for parents to make comfortable, rational decisions about the best way to raise their kids. And for families who do choose co-sleeping, out of principle or pragmatism, still more questions arise. What kind of newborn co-sleeper is best for keeping an infant in arm’s reach but out of harm’s way? When does a co-sleeping toddler transition to their own bed? Is co-sleeping just downright bad? With everything from bedside co-sleepers and cribs to suspended co-sleeper bassinets on offer, there’s a lot to sort through.
To bring some clarity to co-sleeping, here are the five big myths that need to be dispelled so the real risks can be calculated —and everyone can finally get a good night’s sleep.
Myth 1: Co-Sleeping Is Never Safe
The older a child gets, the safer co-sleeping becomes. That’s because the older children are, the better their ability to extricate themselves from suffocation or possible entrapment. And frankly, by the time they can toddle, a parent won’t likely be able to forget them as the kid spins like a top in their bed.
Even for babies, co-sleeping can be facilitated by co-sleeping devices that attach to the side of the bed. These allow breastfeeding mothers easy access to the child while keeping them away from the bedding and big bodies. Other options include “suspended cribs” that keep a kid out of the parent’s way, but easily accessible by suspending them from the ceiling above the bed.
Some parents have even opted to support co-sleeping by having a single parent in the bed on a firm mattress with a tight bottom sheet and minimal covering. This is a relatively safer sleeping arrangement, however, for the youngest babies, there is still a risk of entrapment or suffocation in these situations.
Myth 2: Co-Sleeping Is Perfectly Safe
Okay. Hear us out here. Co-sleeping parents are often practicing a form of attachment parenting that finds parents keeping kids close at all times so their needs can be attended to promptly and without stress. They often espouse the opinion that co-sleeping is a perfectly safe and natural way for parents to raise their children. It is — up to a point.
The problem is that having a child in a standard bed with two parents can be incredibly risky, particularly for babies younger than 3 months. That’s because babies sleeping between parents are at risk for suffocation and entrapment deaths. This can either happen because a parent rolls over on top of a child (this often happens when a parent is intoxicated) or when a baby becomes wrapped in heavy or puffy blankets.
There are ways to mitigate these risks. They include minimizing bulky bedding, never placing the baby between parents, and never going to bed with a baby while intoxicated. That said, the risk will never be reduced to zero and the practice is still not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Myth 3: Co-Sleeping Kids Have a Harder Time Transitioning to Sleeping Alone
Whether moving a kid from a crib or co-sleeping arrangement to a big kid bed of their own, there is bound to be a period of adjustment. One transition is not necessarily more difficult than another. And like most things in parenting, how they take to sleeping alone largely depends on the temperament of the kid.
It should be noted that getting a kid to sleep alone, whether they are babies or preschoolers is going to be a challenge, but the transition from co-sleeping is best accomplished by the “fading” method. This method requires a parent to be close and quiet as a child falls asleep in their own bed. Slowly, the parent puts more distance between themselves and the child (essentially fading back into their own room).
The practice is helped if a child has a transitional object, like a stuffed animal or blanket. This object will help them soothe themselves back to sleep when they wake up alone.
Myth 4: There Are No Benefits to Co-sleeping with Toddlers
Research shows that a baby’s health can improve when they sleep close to parents. In fact, babies that sleep with parents have more regular heartbeats and breathing. They even sleep more soundly. And being close to parents is even shown to reduce the risk of SIDS. That’s why the AAP recommends that children sleep in the same room with parents while stopping short of having those children in the same bed as the parents.
Other benefits include better quality of life for breastfeeding mothers who can more easily feed their child without becoming fully active. Not to mention a baby that sleeps more soundly will have fewer wake-ups, meaning parents are more likely to get their own extra shut-eye.
Myth 5: Co-sleeping Parents Can Never Have Sex
Will parents be able to get it on at night in the privacy of their own bed? Unlikely. But conflating a lack of nighttime sex with years of kid-enforced abstinence shows an utter and complete failure of creative thinking.
Fact is there are 24 hours in the day and most of them are ideal for sex if parents can manage to find time alone together. Sexy time will be helped if parents embrace the quickie, keep the flame lit through the dry times with flirting and touching, and schedule a time to get it on when the kid is with a relative or at a playdate.
Co-sleeping should not be ruining anyone’s marriage. If it is, there were probably some deeper problems to begin with.