All parents want to be sure the sleep choices they make will keep their baby safe. While SIDS is rare, it’s still a common fear of many parents, and understandably so. Not only is SIDS prevention a huge parental worry, it’s something many dedicated health professionals seek to prevent.
Through research and community education, health professionals hope to reduce SIDS as much as possible, by helping parents make good decisions. One common decision many assume, and are even told, can reduce risk is to avoid bed-sharing with baby. But is bed-sharing really dangerous? Are we putting our babies at risk by sleeping with them? The original president of the National SIDS Foundation says bed-sharing isn’t necessarily dangerous.
Why Have We Been Told Bed-Sharing Is Dangerous?
The goal of public health education is to ensure the majority of citizens are safe. General guidelines and recommendations are there to help people make informed decisions, and limit risk.
Inappropriate bed-sharing can, in fact, be a serious risk to infants. In telling all parents to avoid bed-sharing, the assumption was more babies would be protected from accidental rollover, entrapment, and airways being blocked by bedding.
Safe bed-sharing doesn’t pose these risks. It does, however, require more education. Parents need to be given guidelines for safe bed-sharing, which include:
Place baby on her back to sleep
No pillows for infants under 12 months
No fluffy blankets or stuffed animals on the sleep surface
Don’t overheat baby with too much clothing and bedding (your baby will share some of your body heat) Use a firm and flat mattress (no waterbeds)
No loose bedding, strings, or other items which could cover, or wrap around, your baby
Don’t bed-share if you are a smoker, or suffer from sleep apnea, or if you’re extremely overweight (this increases risk of sleep apnea)
Why Is It Important To Know About Safe Bed-Sharing?
Many parents believe it’s safest and best to have babies sleep alone in their cribs. While this is a safe option, and one that works for many, it doesn’t work well every night.
Inevitably, some babies will have fussy nights. There will also be growth spurts, which require babies to feed quite often, and parents will be desperate for rest. Due to fears about bed-sharing, some parents end up falling asleep in gliders, recliners, and couches, assuming it’s safer to keep baby out of their bed. However, it is incredibly dangerous for parents and baby to share a sleep surface other than a firm mattress. By warning all parents against bed-sharing, we might be putting even more babies at risk. If, at 2 am, you’re up for the fifth time, it’s a safe bet you’ll try just about anything to get a bit more rest. Taking baby to your firm and safe sleep space is a good option, but drifting off to sleep on your couch, a beanbag or any other surface is not.
What Does The Research Say About Bed-Sharing?
Infant mortality is a serious public health concern. By the 1970s, Dr. Abraham B. Bergman (the original president of the National SIDS foundation) got SIDS research into federal research programs. Dr. Bergman has worked in many areas of public health, especially areas related to pediatrics. His most recent research was released in 2013, but it received very little attention. Perhaps this was directly related to the research contradicting many current stances of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which generally recommends against bed-sharing. Despite the lack of attention, the paper was written with observational data and research regarding SIDS, bed-sharing, and other causes of Sudden Unexplained Infant Death (SUID). The paper explains that a big problem with SIDS research is that each coroner may use different terminology regarding the cause of death. SIDS, also called cot death in some areas, was the term often used when the reason for a baby’s death was unknown, and where there were no obvious signs of suffocation. However, suffocation due to entrapment, rollover, or objects (blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, etc) is sometimes included in SIDS statistics.
When records began to include suffocation in SIDS statistics, it meant that SIDS itself wasn’t the only thing being researched. Suffocation isn’t actually SIDS, and deaths due to bed-sharing are typically related to suffocation. By following safe bed-sharing guidelines, we reduce the risk of suffocation. To date, there are no studies that link bed-sharing to an increased risk of SIDS which control for other risk factors such as formula feeding, exposure to smoke, unsafe bed-sharing surface, etc. In addition to Dr. Bergman, who has over 50 years’ experience researching unexplained infant death, other well-known medical professionals have gathered research which shows bed-sharing to be safe, as well as possibly protective against SIDS (when breastfeeding). Dr. James McKenna, professor at the University of Notre Dame Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, has many studies which show the following:
Breastfeeding mother-baby pairs are biologically designed to be close to each other, even while sleeping, and bed-sharing provides physiological benefits for both parties
If parents cannot safely bed-share, co-sleeping (same room within arm’s reach) with a separate sleep surface (such as a bassinet) provides similar benefits without the risks associated with unsafe bed-sharing
Bed-sharing aids in breastfeeding by positively affecting milk supply and duration of breastfeeding Infants who breastfeed and bed-share are more easily aroused, which might be protective against SIDS
Being in close contact with a caregiver helps infants pattern their breathing
Does All Of This Mean I Should Bed-Share And It’s Perfectly Safe?
Every decision we make as parents carries some risks. SIDS also remains a problem that we don’t fully understand. However, it seems that current research doesn’t show safe bed-sharing to be risky. By telling all parents to avoid bed-sharing, rather than educate them about safe ways to bed-share, we’re actually putting more babies at risk, as parents end up falling asleep in unsafe places with babies in arms.
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