Marianne is a mother from Scotland who is passionate about providing accurate information about breastfeeding and parenting.
I shared my bed with my baby for two years, since he was about 2 weeks old. It turned out to be the best way for us to get good-quality sleep. Safe co-sleeping is possible. My main regret is not knowing more about it before I gave birth.
In many parts of the world, mothers and babies share a bed. However in many Western countries, it’s recommended for infants to sleep separately from their parents in their own crib. Co-sleeping is sometimes portrayed as risky and dangerous. It is true that it can be, when done in unsafe circumstances, but if you follow safe-bed-sharing guidance, co-sleeping is very safe.
Sharing a bed with your baby is not the right choice for every family. However to help you make an informed choice, I’ve summarised the guidelines for you below.
Even if you do not plan to co-sleep, it’s useful to be aware of the guidelines. Many parents plan for their baby to sleep peacefully in their cot or crib (I did), but find their baby has other ideas. The majority of parents end up sharing their bed with their baby some of the time. Unplanned co-sleeping is always less safe than planned co-sleeping.
What Is Co-Sleeping?
The term "co-sleeping" is used in different ways, which can be confusing. In this article when referring to co-sleeping, I am talking about sharing a sleep surface (for example a bed) with your baby.
Sometimes the term co-sleeping is used to just mean sleeping in the same room as your baby, regardless of whether in the same bed or a separate crib. If you are reading up on co-sleeping, pay attention to what definition is being used.
Regardless of whether you bedshare, sharing a room with your baby is recommended for at least the first 6 months of a baby’s life. The Association of American Paediatrics says sharing for one year as ideal. Studies show that this protects babies against SIDS. It’s believed the baby’s breathing is regulated by being in the same room as their parent. Baby monitors do not have the same effect.
Why I Chose Co-Sleeping
My newborn baby would not sleep in his cot, especially at night. Babies are born with an instinctive desire to be held and protected by their mother. My partner and I took turns staying awake and holding our baby. This was exhausting and not sustainable.
After a few days of sleep deprivation, I started to fall asleep while breastfeeding. Breastfeeding releases a hormone called prolactin which makes the mother sleepy. It’s not safe to accidentally fall asleep with a baby (especially on a sofa which is where I was at one point). So I looked up the guidance, cleared away my bedding, moved pillows out the way, and breastfed my baby lying on my side on the bed.
I woke up a few hours later feeling super refreshed. My baby was happy next to me. I was happy he was close to me. From then on, I stopped bothering with the cot, especially at night. I’d found a better way for us both to get sleep.
I’ve never regretted that decision. My only regret is not knowing about the guidelines sooner.
What Are the Benefits of Co-Sleeping?
- Convenience. Co-sleeping is convenient. My goal as a new mother was to do everything to maximise my own sleep, and this worked best for us.
- Breastfeeding. If the baby is right next to you, you don’t need to get up in the middle of the night to feed the baby. If you manage to master breastfeeding lying down, you might be able to avoid sitting up. Roll over, feed and then get back to sleep as soon as possible. In fact the baby might feed while you are still asleep, the dream of multitaskers.
There is evidence that bedsharing mothers breastfeed their babies for longer. If breastfeeding your baby is important to you, cosleeping can help improve and lengthen the relationship. (Source: Bedsharing and Breastfeeding: The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Protocol #6. Revision 2019)
- More Sleep. Bedsharing can improve the quality of sleep for both mother and baby. Scientific research suggests that on average, bedsharing mothers get more sleep than mothers who don’t share the bed. They are woken up more frequently, but usually get back to sleep faster, leading to more sleep overall. (Source: Bedsharing and Breastfeeding: The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Protocol #6. Revision 2019)
- Changing Diapers. My top tip to also help with sleep is to keep nappy changing equipment next to the bed. This means that you can do middle of the night nappy changes without getting out of bed. (Your unused cot next to the bed may be a good place to store your nappy change stuff along with your laundry).
Society tells us that the goal is for babies to be independent in their own cots. But I liked waking up, and having my baby right next to me.
Remember, parenting is all about finding out what works for you and your baby. Some babies will sleep well in their own cots. When I asked other mothers I met what they did most of them co-slept sometimes, but not all the time. For example, the baby would start the night in the cot and join them at some point in the night when they woke up. Expect your baby’s sleep patterns to change as they get older, and not always in a linear way.
Pros and Cons of Co-Sleeping
Better sleep for mum and baby
You might get woken up by being kicked in the night
Minimises wake ups
You might miss having your own space to sleep in
Might be the only way your baby will sleep, so what choice do you have?
May impact relationship with partner
Breastfeeding relationship strengthened
Society has a judgemental stance on it and friends and family will ask ‘is your baby in the cot yet?’
Baby is close to you
Might make it harder to get your baby to sleep elsewhere once they are older
Is Co-Sleeping Safe?
Co-sleeping is safe if you are able to follow the guidelines to make it safe. It can also be very dangerous in some circumstances.
When is Co-Sleeping Unsafe?
The main circumstances where cosleeping is dangerous are:
- Sleeping on a sofa, armchair, or other unsuitable bed. A soft mattress is not safe.
- If you have drunk alcohol, or taken drugs that make you drowsy (doesn’t make a difference if the drugs are illegal or legal)
- If you smoke or smoked during pregnancy
- If your baby was premature (born before 37 weeks) or had a low birth weight (2.5kg or 5½ lbs or less)
The advice about smoking and drinking also applies to your partner or anyone else who shares your bed. Research shows that babies are at higher risk of SIDS if they live with someone who smokes, even if it is in a separate room away from your baby. One of the best things you can do to minimise the risk of SIDS, regardless of whether you bedshare or not is to give up smoking. (Source: Lullaby Trust Smoking Factsheet)
At What Age Can You Co-Sleep Safely?
If you have informed yourself of the safe sleep guidelines and feel comfortable doing so, you can co-sleep from birth.
However it is not recommended to bedshare from birth if your baby was
- low birth weight (2.5kg or 5 ½ lbs)
- premature (born before 37 weeks)
This is because there is a higher risk of SIDS for these babies when bedsharing. Instead your baby should sleep on a separate surface next to you, until older.
How to Make Co-Sleeping Safe?
Your baby will be safest if you have a firm mattress. You need to keep bedding away from the baby. This means no pillows, heavy duvets, or teddy bears near the baby.
If you have a partner who normally shares the bed with you, consider how they feel. It’s common for partners to move to the spare room leaving mum to share with the baby.
How Do I Keep From Rolling Onto My Baby?
You know yourself best. Do you usually roll over objects on your bed in your sleep? Most people will not roll over a baby in their sleep.
Rolling on top of a baby is not something sober people normally do. If you have seen news stories about people who have tragically suffocated their baby, alcohol or drugs are usually a factor.
If you are drunk or on drugs (whether legal or illegal) that make you less aware of the baby, guidelines recommend you do not bedshare. Instead put the baby in a separate cot in the same room as yourself, or with another adult if you are in a state where you cannot care for the baby.
Some guidelines also say that extremely obese adults should not bedshare, as they may be less aware of where a baby is in relation to their body.
Is SIDS a Risk?
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the unexplained death of an infant where no cause can be found. It’s most common in babies under 6 months.
It’s very rare, but a terrifying thought for any parent.
There is no clear link between co-sleeping and SIDS, provided you follow the safe bedsharing guidelines. The studies where a link has been shown include babies sleeping in situations known to be hazardous, for example on the sofa, or with smoking parents. (Source: An Integrated Analysis of Maternal-Infant Sleep, Breastfeeding, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Research Supporting a Balanced Discourse - 2019)
You can take steps to reduce the risk of SIDS by
- making sure you don’t fall into the unsafe categories above
- ensuring the sleeping surface is as safe as possible
Making a Safe Sleep Surface
Where your baby sleeps makes a big difference. Falling asleep with a baby on a sofa or a couch increases the risk of SIDS by 50 times. If you think you are in danger of falling asleep on a sofa, either ask someone else to watch you, or move to a bed.
On the bed, move all pillows, duvets, teddies and blankets away from the baby. Hard firm mattresses are also recommended.
Other actions to reduce the risk of SIDS are:
- Placing your baby on their back has been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS. It is recommended to do this when sharing a bed, too.
- Temperature: overheating can be a factor in SIDS. It’s recommended that you keep your room between 16 and 20 degrees Centigrade (60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit). Try not to overdress your baby; dress them in light clothes for sleep.
(Source: Lullaby Trust: Baby Room Temperature)
Why Is There a Difference Between Recommendations for Breastfeeding and Bottle-Feeding Mothers?
Research shows that breastfeeding mothers are especially aware of babies in their beds. They naturally assume a protective position in the bed, where the baby is level with the baby’s chest. They move in sync with the baby through the night.
Formula feeding mothers tend to position their baby differently, usually at the pillow position. There is not much research into the safety of bedsharing and formula-feeding mothers, so it is not recommended.
Wherever they sleep, formula-fed babies are at higher risk of SIDS in general than breastfed babies. If you end up co-sleeping with a formula-fed baby, it means it is especially important you are aware of the other guidelines. If you want your baby close, a ‘next to me’ style cot that attaches to your bed may be a good option.
Are In-Bed Co-Sleepers Safe?
There are many in-bed co-sleepers on the market, like pods or nests. However these are not recommended by the experts. If you are bedsharing the safest place for your baby to sleep is on a firm hard mattress with you. In-bed co-sleepers are not safe.
(Source: Lullaby Trust Cosleeping Guidance)
Do Babies Sleep Better Co-Sleeping?
Yes, most babies sleep better co-sleeping. Babies are born with animal survival instincts that mean they want to be close to their caregivers, especially their mother. Many babies will only fall asleep if touching their mothers.
When Should I Stop Co-Sleeping?
How long parents co-sleep for will vary. There are no rules. You can stop when you want, assuming you can manage to get the baby or child to sleep without you. At some point most children will happily move to their own bed, some will need more persuasion than others. It’s common for small children to climb in with their parents during the night, especially if they are ill even if they didn’t cosleep as a baby. I still co-sleep with my toddler, and apart from certain nights when he wakes up or kicks a lot, I’m happy with that. I know that one day soon he will want his independence. No child sleeps with their parents forever.
This is a website created in the Anthropology Department of Durham University to provide parents and health practitioners up-to-date information about research into infant sleep
The Sleep Lab is a department of the University of Notre Dame. Their website contains guidance and links to information and research into mother and baby sleep arrangements.
The Lullaby Trust is a charity that raises awareness of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and provides advice on safer sleep for babies and support for bereaved parents.
La Leche League is an international organisation that supports and promotes breastfeeding. They provide lots of using advice and information on sleep when breastfeeding.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.