The Low-Down on Controversial Co-Sleeping

Co-sleeping is simple but controversial. Tempted to try it? Here's everything you need to know before you decide just where and how you newborn baby will sleep.

The Low-Down on Controversial Co-Sleeping Oksana Shufrych/Shutterstock

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 added new fuel to the fire: Do not put the baby in the parents' bed, it advised, or she may come to real harm.

A report from 1999 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," Lisa says. "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.

Bed-sharing pluses

The practical benefits of bed sharing are obvious. Not only are parents close by to respond to the baby if something goes wrong, but co-sleeping makes it easier for the breastfeeding mom to nurse throughout the night. Then, of course, there is the irresistible sweet intimacy of it. "There is an instinctive need for the mother to be close to her baby," says Cynthia Epps, M.S., a certified lactation educator at the Pump Station in Santa Monica, Calif. Working women who don't get to see their babies all day may be especially attracted to co-sleeping to make up for the missed contact. "Keeping the baby close, with skin-to-skin contact, calms the baby," says Epps. "And it can cement the emotional bond between mother and child."

For the child, the emotional benefits could be long-term, McKenna says. "Studies in England and the United States have shown that babies who have slept apart from their parents have more tantrums and less control of their emotions and eventually receive more negative reports from teachers," he says.

If the shoe doesn't fit ...

Bed sharing is not for everyone. Some mothers simply feel that their babies are safer in a bassinet nearby or on an extension bed made for babies that fits flush on one side of the adult bed. "I have a queen-size bed and a king-size husband," says Mary O'Neill, a Los Angeles mother of three young children, who once awoke in time to see her husband, in a deep sleep, almost roll over on their baby. After that, she kept the baby in a bassinet next to the bed.

"The assessment by that mother was appropriate," McKenna says. "Parents shouldn't be told what to do. What is right for one household has nothing to do with what's right in another household."

Sleeping with a baby can have another drawback: It can deprive busy parents of their own physical closeness. "With three kids, [my husband and I] get little time together," says Lisa Stone. "When we have a child between us every night, we just don't get private time."

And sometimes a child will make her own sleeping choice, defying all your well-thought-out plans. "We had every intention to allow our daughter, Charlotte, to sleep with us as long as she wanted," says Shannon Branham of Van Nuys, Calif. "But at 18 months, she told us that she wanted her own big bed, and that's where she's been ever since."

Whatever sleeping arrangement you finally choose, remember that it's bound to change, particularly as your baby grows and starts to develop a mind of her own.