The Family Bed | Fit Pregnancy

The Family Bed

Co-sleeping is simple but controversial. Here's what you need to know.

A fiery controversy surrounds that most gentle human activity: a baby’s sleep. Actually, the debate hinges on where the baby sleeps. Put her in a crib, some people say, and you’ll deprive
her of necessary, reassuring contact. Put her in the parents’ bed, others maintain, and she’ll never learn to be independent. A report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has added new fuel to the fire: Do not put the baby in the parents’ bed, it advised, or she may come to real harm.

The September 1999 report advised parents against keeping a baby in the adult bed, citing a study of 515 baby deaths in a seven-year period that were related to suffocation and entrapment. But many experts, including the renowned pediatrician Penelope Leach, refuted the wisdom of this advice and questioned the findings, noting that other risk factors weren’t taken into account, such as whether the parents were drinking or taking drugs, or if the babies had been lying on their stomachs (which could indicate sudden infant death syndrome).

As with most parenting decisions, there is no right or wrong choice in this matter; it all depends on the needs, desires and lifestyles of everyone concerned. But such a dire official recommendation might scare parents away from making a choice that, with some simple precautions, can be perfectly safe.

The Logistics of Sleep

While experts duke out their differences, parents live the everyday (and night) reality that usually includes a combination of sleeping locations and middle-of-the-night bed switching. Lisa and Larry Stone of Seattle didn’t intend to sleep with their three kids, now ages 14, 4 and 1. But at least one or two are in their bed almost every night. “Our youngest, Jordan, has slept with us much more than the other two,” says Lisa. “He has allergies and gets real stuffy and sleeps best when he’s lying on my arm with his head on my shoulder. I’m older now and more tired, and getting up again to put him back in his crib is not worth the effort. Other nights, I’ll go to comfort one of the kids in their bed and just fall asleep there.”

“Location is not as important as relationships — how parents build attachment and love,” says James McKenna, Ph.D., an anthropologist specializing in infancy and development and director of the mother/baby behavioral sleep laboratory at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. He also makes the point that gaining independence, which is part of the rationale for advocating crib sleeping, is something that a child will learn over time from her parents in many different ways.

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