The Surprising Benefit of Bed-Sharing

Experts recommend placing your infant alone in a crib at bedtime—but one study has found a surprising benefit that can come with the territory of co-sleeping.

The Surprising Benefit of Bed-Sharing

It's no secret that there are plenty of serious risks associated with "co-sleeping," which essentially refers to putting your baby to sleep in the bed with you. Experts caution against this—but a recent study argues that there's one upside that comes with sleeping alongside your baby.

According to the study, mothers who frequently share a bed with their infants also tend to be breastfeed for longer than mothers who don't. Additionally, women who seemed strongly motivated to breastfeed throughout their pregnancies were also more likely to bed-share once their babies were born.

Breastfeeding and bed-sharing

These findings come from a study of women who were recruited during their pregnancies. The women provided weekly reports of their breastfeeding and bed-sharing behavior after giving birth and the researchers also evaluated intent to breastfeed during their pregnancies.

The women sampled didn't vary widely in terms of lifestyle factors (think marital status, income, age, delivery mode) so bed-sharing was likely the factor that determined their breastfeeding habits. According to the study, the women who slept alongside their infants were much more likely to still be breastfeeding at the six month mark.

"We previously found that mothers who bed-share were twice as likely to breastfeed their baby for at least six months than mothers who began breastfeeding but didn't bed-share. In this paper we show that mothers with the strongest intent to breastfeed are the ones who sleep with their babies the most," Helen Ball, Ph.D., lead author of the study said.

The benefits of both?

Now, breastfeeding is undeniably beneficial for infants—it can ward off infections, reduce a baby's risk of illness, even protect against sudden infant death syndrome. But this finding isn't black-and-white. Medical experts caution against co-sleeping, urging mothers to place their babies alone in their cribs every night, as co-sleeping is thought to contribute to rates of SIDS. We've reported on the link between breastfeeding and co-sleeping before—but we've also covered the dangers of co-sleeping. It's clear that this topic has no one-size-fits-all solution, an idea that even this particular study's author echoes.

"Over 20 or so years of research we have found bed-sharing is something most mothers do at some point, and breastfeeding mothers do a lot," Dr. Ball tells Fit Pregnancy. "It helps them to cope with the sleep disruption of frequent feeds and to keep breastfeeding. It is also biologically normal for babies to sleep in close proximity with their mothers. It is what we have done as mammals for millions of years."

Ball adds that there are dangers associated with sleep position. "What has changed in the present day is our sleep environment, so mothers who choose to bed-share should know what can make it hazardous and avoid these things, which range from drugs and alcohol and smoking to removing gaps around the bed, and thinking about the position of pillows and covers. For some mothers the benefits outweigh the risks because the risks are small—breastfeeding non-smokers have no increased risk when they avoid the above hazards. For other mothers there are issues they can't avoid—premature baby, smoking in pregnancy, drug or medication use that impairs their arousal—and so these mothers need guidance to avoid bed-sharing as the risks outweigh the benefits," she says. "All parents should avoid sleeping with their baby on sofas/couches as these have been shown to be particularly hazardous."