Is Co-Sleeping Dangerous For Your Baby?

It’s one of the first sources of mom guilt for many new mamas: Sleeping with their baby. For years, parents have been advised not to do it. But is co-sleeping dangerous, really?

Modern moms are told that babies should sleep on their backs in a crib or bassinet free of any loose bedding, blankets, bumpers, or pillows. When the crib is placed in the parents’ room, it’s the safest sleep environment for an infant. But despite this guidance, one in four moms choose to bring baby into their beds instead. That number has risen fourfold in the past 20 years. And during this time, the number of sleep-related infant deaths has not increased, but held steady at about 3,500 annually. So is co-sleeping dangerous?

Co-Sleeping Can Be Safe for Some

As a new parent, I’d assumed co-sleeping was an absolute no-no, and we never had our firstborn in bed with us. But it was a different story with my daughter, born four years later. Her crib was in our room, and she always began the night there. But by morning, she’d be next to me. And every morning I would feel guilty about putting her “at risk” like that, and vow not to do it again. But my morning willpower was never quite as strong as my midnight sleepiness, and so she’d end up in bed with us again.

Turns out co-sleeping like this isn’t the death sentence that I assumed it to be. Our situation put my daughter at low risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or other sleep-related infant death: she was born full term and a healthy weight, and I don’t smoke. I’m also not obese, don’t drink alcohol or do drugs, or take any medications that might make me drowsy or a heavy sleeper. Plus as as breastfeeding mom I probably naturally curled my body in a protective stance around my daughter. This is something that may not happen with co-sleeping moms who use formula.

Given all these low-risk attributes, having her in bed with me put the risk of her dying at 1 in 16,400, according to NPR. In other words, the risk of her getting hit by lightning was higher than the chance of death by co-sleeping. Of course the risk was even lower if she stayed in her crib, dropping 1 in 46,000.

This graphic originally published on NPR’s website shows the risks of co-sleeping as compared to the leading causes of accidental death for children.

Co-Sleeping Is Dangerous for High-Risk Babies

These numbers are shockingly different for babies deemed of moderate or high risk of SIDS, however. For babies with low birth weights or born prematurely, or babies sleeping next to parents who smoke, or who have been drinking or using drugs, co-sleeping is much more dangerous. For these high-risk babies, the chance of dying while co-sleeping is a scary 1 in 150.

Some of the reasons for that: Inebriated parents might roll on their babies and be unaware and fail to wake, suffocating the little one. Parents zonked out on drugs are less likely to take care that the sleep environment is as safe as can be. And babies of parents who smoke have a much higher risk of SIDS no matter where they are sleeping.

Co-Sleeping Precautions

Room sharing, in which your baby is in a crib, bassinet, or co-sleeper, is the absolute safest way for your baby to sleep. But if your baby and your situation puts you at lower risk for SIDS, careful co-sleeping might not be as risky as traditionally believed. Even the fairly conservative American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has acknowledged the increasing occurrence of co-sleeping in the U.S. While they still don’t recommend it, they encourage parents to share, not hide, their sleeping arrangements with their pediatricians, who are advised to listen and provide co-sleeping advice without judgement.

If you do choose to co-sleep, experts recommend following these precautions:

  • Babies should be on a flat, firm surface, away from pillows, with only their bodies covered by light bedding.
  • Moms who use formula should avoid or exercise extra precaution when co-sleeping, as their co-sleep patterns haven’t been as well studied as those of breastfeeding moms.
  • Breastfed babies should be next to their moms, who will instinctively protect them, studies have shown.
  • Never co-sleep when any of the adults in bed have been drinking or using drugs.
  • If you or your partner smoke, don’t co-sleep (even if you don’t smoke in the house or in bed).
  • Never swaddle your baby while co-sleeping.
  • Low-weight or premature babies benefit from being placed in a co-sleeper, but should not sleep in bed with adults.
  • Avoid family-bed situations with siblings and baby.
  • Never sleep with or lie your baby on a sofa or chair; babies can become trapped against the furniture and suffocate.

What’s your feeling on co-sleeping? Do you sleep with your baby?