Bed-sharing with Baby
A recent article released by NPR was titled “Is Sleeping with Your Baby as Dangerous as Doctors Say?” and has brought a lot of attention to the topic of co-sleeping, also called bed-sharing or sleep-sharing.
We love articles that show that mother’s and father’s intuition trump pseudoscience. In my fifty years as a pediatrician, I’ve learned when science and mother’s intuition disagree, suspect faulty science. This article, and its author, Michaeleen Doucleff, expose how shaky “science” has caused confusion about one of the oldest and warmest worldwide parenting practices – sleeping with your baby.
Early on in my parenting and pediatric career, we used our growing family and our pediatric practice as sort of a laboratory to study what parents do to influence how well their children turn out. Our first conclusion: mothers and infants who share sleep seem more attached, and these children are more likely to grow up with, in my opinion, the number one tool for success you want to plant into your child’s growing brain garden – empathy and compassion.
Sleep-sharing mothers seem to grow their “mommy brain,” a live area in their brain that new science reveals really exists. This cerebral GPS, like two other “baby B’s” – breastfeeding and babywearing – actually grows when mothers and babies are securely attached.
The Sears Family Experience with Bed-sharing
When our eighth child came into our family “sleep laboratory” by adoption, technology was available to measure what we instinctively felt – something healthful happens to babies when they share sleep with their parents, especially the mother. We wired Lauren with electronic gadgets while sleeping next to Martha and then while sleeping in a separate bed but in our bedroom. When sleep-sharing, also now called “bed-sharing” or “co-sleeping,” Lauren’s physiology was more in balance: her blood oxygen was more stable, as was her breathing and her heart rates. We published these not-so-surprising discoveries in many of our books.
Coincidentally at this time, I met noted anthropologist Dr. James McKenna who was just beginning a scientific evaluation of sleep-sharing. “Jim,” I said, “I’m looking forward to you scientifically proving what parents and many pediatricians instinctively believe – safe sleep-sharing is healthful for mother and baby.” As this article so wisely reveals, Dr. McKenna, now Director of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, has done fascinating research on the physiologic benefits of sleeping with your baby. Dr. Mom was smarter than the pseudoscientists after all!
Association Between Bed-sharing and Sudden Infant Death Syndromne (SIDS)
Also, as the article points out, the “studies” looking at the association between bed-sharing and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) are shaky at best. When I first read them, my pulse went up. How dare a bunch of number-crunchers looking back at hospital emergency room records (called “retrospective studies,” the least credible of all) confuse and scare parents out of what just comes naturally. Many times mothers have told me: “It just feels right…” and “I carried my baby for nine months in my womb, now it just feels right to sleep close to my baby for the next nine months, or more!”
Speaking of SIDS, I remember a sleep-sharing mother telling me this almost tragic story, but one that had a happy ending. She slept with her baby each night. When baby was around four months of age she was at a dinner party. Baby fell asleep early so she put baby to sleep in another room while she quickly finished her dinner. Halfway through her meal an alarm went off in her “mommy brain” – something didn’t feel right. She ran to the room where her baby was to find he was not breathing and was slightly cool and blue. She quickly held her baby close, stimulating the breathing and baby was just fine. Many such stories convince me that sleep-sharing creates an amazing bond between mother and child that we may never fully understand.
Sears Recommendation on Bed-sharing
The “science” that started this confusion was done by statisticians and researchers looking at a pile of hospital charts. Dr. McKenna’s research was done with actual mother-infant pairs while bed-sharing. Which research would you most trust? As this article hinted, trust the conclusions of the university mother-baby sleep laboratory. I do!
As we describe in our books and on our website, for parents who wish to sleep close to their babies yet not in the same bed, a safe alternative sleeping arrangement is to use a bedside cosleeper – a bassinette that attaches safely and securely to the side of parent’s bed. Mother and baby sleep on separate surfaces, but mother is within arm’s reach of baby for easy feeding and comforting.
Instead of a blanket “never sleep in the same bed with your baby,” in the age of personalized medicine healthcare providers should personalize their bedsharing advice to fit each unique family situation. One sleeping arrangement does not fit all families.
For more information about the health benefits of sleeping wisely and safely with your baby, see AskDrSears.com.
Dr. William Sears, pediatrician of fifty years, father of eight, and Martha Sears, co-authors of The Baby Sleep Book and The Baby Book