How To Co-Sleep Safely

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Co-sleeping is an oddly controversial topic among parents. While some will advise against this parental practice, others will strongly advocate for co-sleeping – provided you know how to do it safely, of course.

What are the many co-sleeping benefits and potential drawbacks? How is it done correctly? Let’s take a closer look at what co-sleeping really is, and how to safely co-sleep down below. By the end, you’ll be able to make an informed decision on if this approach is right for you and your child.

What is Co-Sleeping?

Co-sleeping is when parents allow their babies and/or young children to sleep close to them, rather than in a separate room. Though many Western countries balk at the idea, this is actually a standard practice in many parts of the world.

Here are a few different ways that families co-sleep with one another.

Bed-Sharing

As the name implies, you’re allowing your child to sleep in the same bed as you.

You can also co-bed, which means sharing your bed with your infant twins, triplets, or other higher-numbered infants.

Sidecar Arrangement

This involves attaching your baby’s crib to one side of your bed, typically the side the mother sleeps on. Your baby’s crib will still have three of its sides left up. The side that is attached to your bed, however, will be either lowered or removed, so you can reach them more easily.

Different Beds in the Same Room

Your baby’s bassinet or crib can either be within arm’s reach or just somewhere in the same room, so you can check in on them every now and then. You can also set up a pallet or bed for a slightly older child, next to or at the foot of your bed.

Child Welcomed Into Parents’ Bed

This is quite self-explanatory. You simply welcome your child into your bed whenever they feel like it, even if they already have their own bedroom.

Co-Sleeping Benefits

One of the greatest benefits of co-sleeping is that it’s easier to breastfeed your infant in the middle of the night if they get hungry. Not only does this help them relax, but breastfeeding can also help protect infants from SIDS/SUDI, as well as secondary diseases and/or other congenital conditions. In fact, it can reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (or SIDS, for short) by as much as 50 percent.

co sleeping benefits

Many women worry about falling asleep while breastfeeding in the middle of the night, which can mean accidentally co-sleeping when they didn’t intend to. If you find this happening often, it’s best to have your partner stay up with you for support, especially in the first weeks when you’re most exhausted.

Parents who co-sleep also find that both they and their babies get more sleep than when sleeping apart. Even more restless babies, who wake up often in the middle of the night, are generally soothed by their parents’ close presence. As a result, they experience less nighttime separation anxiety.

Co-Sleeping Drawbacks

Most parents who are averse to co-sleeping are afraid that their baby will fall victim to sudden infant death syndrome, which is when infants accidentally suffocate or strangle themselves while sleeping. A great deal of co-sleeping research indicates that bed-sharing in particular is quite dangerous. More than 3,500 babies in the U.S. alone die from SIDS every year.

Unfortunately, most of the research on co-sleeping also tends to conflict with itself, and much of the evidence praising it is purely anecdotal.

Whether co-sleeping is truly safe or not is still largely up for debate and further research.

The Official Word on Co-Sleeping

The American Academy of Pediatrics (or AAP, for short) does support co-sleeping if you take certain safety precautions, because the skin-to-skin contact for newborns sleeping next to their parents has proven beneficial to their health.

co sleeping with newborn

However, they still recommend against bed-sharing due to the potential injury or SIDS risks this method poses.

How to Co-Sleep Safely

Despite the drawbacks listed above, it is possible to co-sleep safely with your child if you take the right precautions.

With a Newborn

Co-sleeping with your newborn can be a great way for you to care for them without having to get up in the middle of the night. However, you should not co-sleep with your newborn if:

  • They are less than one year old.
  • Either you or your partner smokes.
  • Either you or your partner has drunk alcohol or taken drugs (including any medications that can make you drowsy).
  • You are extremely tired or suffer from a sleep disorder.
  • Your baby was born prematurely (roughly 37 weeks or less before their due date).
  • Your baby was born with a low weight (as in 5 1/2 pounds or smaller).

Safety Measures

You should also put several safety measures in place before co-sleeping every night.

co sleeping with toddler

Make sure that the area your baby sleeps in is clear of any pillows, sheets, blankets, toys, or any other object that could obstruct your baby’s breathing or cause them to overheat. Most babies who die of SIDS are often suffocated or strangled by loose bedding. To ensure your baby does not get cold in the night, dress them in snug clothes before bed.

If you want to bed-share, make sure you get a large mattress that provides ample room for everyone involved. However, this does not mean your whole family should sleep in one bed. If you co-sleep with a newborn, do not allow any pets or older children to climb into bed with you.

It’s best to place their mattress on the floor for now, so that the surface is flat, firm, and smooth. Avoid placing them on any plush or overly soft surfaces, such as a water bed, sofa, pillowtop mattress, beanbag chair, or any other flexible structure. Babies who co-sleep with their parents on sofas and armchairs in particular are 50 times more likely to fall victim to SIDS.

If you choose to have them bed-share on an elevated bed, make sure you use mesh guard-rails to prevent them from rolling off your bed. Some bed guardrails are designed for older children and will have small spaces that could trap your little one. Make sure the guard-rail you use is specifically designed for infant use.

You should also ensure there are no other crevices that your baby may become stuck in, such as between your mattress and the wall or even the small spaces in between the headboard or footboard.

With a Toddler

Co-sleeping with your toddler, or child aged one to three years old, should prove a little easier than sleeping with a newborn, since they are no longer at risk for SIDS. That being said, there are still important factors to consider when co-sleeping with a toddler.

what is co sleeping

While soft items like blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals no longer pose much of a risk to your child’s health, you should still avoid putting their crib or bed near an area that has any loose strings, such as window blind pulls, curtains, or electrical cords. You should also ensure they’re unable to pull any sharp or otherwise harmful objects into their cribs in the middle of the night.

Toddlers can be quite fussy and possessive over their space in the bed, making it difficult for you and your partner to truly enjoy a good night’s sleep. This does not necessarily mean you have to end your co-sleeping arrangement if your toddler craves your company, however.

When your toddler reaches around three years old, you can start to transition them into their own small toddler or twin bed in your room with a side rail. Ideally, you should have them do this as close to age three as possible, though you should always gauge your own child’s interest in the matter first. The more uncomfortable they are, the more likely this is to cause you both unnecessary stress.

Give Them Their Own Room

It may also be wise to adjust them to sleeping on their own room, depending on their and your preferences. Introduce the concept to your child slowly, rather than just kicking them out right off the bat. After all, suddenly ending a co-sleeping arrangement can be very upsetting for a child who is used to the comfort of being near their parents all night long.

Try having your child pick out their own bed, bedding, and other transitional objects, such as soft toys or stuffed animals. This can help them ease into the transition far more smoothly.

Fading

When they are ready to try sleeping on their own, you should implement “fading” to get them used to the change. Basically, fading is when you stay by your child’s side until they fall asleep, then leave afterwards. This reassures your child that you are still watching over them, even if you’re not sleeping in the same room as them anymore. It is admittedly a slow process, but well worth the results.

safe co sleeping

During the first night of fading, you need to sit on the bed with your child, and stay there until the child falls asleep. Make sure you do this for at least three nights in a row before moving onto the next phase where you sit a little farther away (i.e. the edge of the bed or in a desk chair nearby) until they fall asleep. Always keep up the gap of three nights in between phases to ensure success.

The whole point is to take smaller and smaller steps away from your child each phase, so they become used to the distance and ultimately learn to sleep in their room alone.

Safe Co-Sleeping Positions

On Their Back

All babies should sleep on their backs for both naps and throughout the night until they reach one year old. Babies are much less likely to die of SIDS in this position, compared to those who sleep on their stomachs or sides.

If you’re worried that your baby will choke when lying on their back, rest assured that their airway anatomy and the gag reflex will prevent that from happening. Doctors advise that even babies with gastroesophageal reflux (or GERD) need to sleep on their backs.

Not on Their Side nor Stomach

Babies lying on their side can roll more easily onto their stomach, which can cause them to suffocate by accident.

In fact, the only time a baby should be sleeping on their stomach is if they are already comfortable (and able to) roll from their back to their stomach and vice versa, or right after they are born.

For the first hour of their lives, newborns need to sleep skin-to-skin with their mother. This not only helps them to bond with their parents, but also provides numerous health benefits, including stabilizing their body temperature, breathing, and heart rate.

When the mother needs to sleep, your baby should be placed on their backs in their bassinet. Premature babies may also need to temporarily lie on their stomachs while in the NICU if they suffer from any breathing problems, but they should still be placed on their backs after such problems are resolved.

If your baby is able to roll themselves around, be sure there are no blankets, pillows, stuffed toys, or bumper pads around them that they can roll onto and suffocate on.

how to safely co sleep

Other Notes

If your baby falls asleep in a car seat, stroller, swing, infant carrier, or sling, you need to move them to a firmer, flatter sleeping area on their backs as soon as possible. This will ensure their airways don’t become restricted.

You also need to pay attention to your own sleep sensitivity when co-sleeping. If you tend to be a deep sleeper that only wakes up when your baby starts crying, then it might be best for you to install a sidecar arrangement or place their crib directly next to your bed, instead of having them bed-share with you.

Conclusion

Despite the few criticisms and hang-ups, co-sleeping has proven itself to be quite beneficial for both parents and their children alike! If you feel it’s best for your child, consider the safety precautions and give it a try.

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