What is the Safest Way to Cosleep?
Q: Hi! I have a question about bed-sharing. I have been sharing sleep with my 5-month-old son who sleeps next to me on his back (dressed in a sleep sack for warmth, while I keep myself wrapped in blankets). Are there any sleep cuddle positions that are less safe than others? I usually find that I am reaching over to lay my arm across his midsection so that I can put some comforting touch on his arms. This helps him stay asleep during light sleep with startle reflexes. Just want to make sure we are cuddling in a safe position for him! I think that the light pressure of my arm resting across his chest/tummy is most likely just fine but wanted to know your thoughts.
A: Hello! I love your question, and from what you say about how you “sleep cuddle”, it seems you are being a responsible bed-sharing mom. This sounds exactly like what I used to do with our babies to keep them safely close and connected so they wouldn’t stir awake so much, and it helped me sleep, too. Just be sure to keep your blankets to yourself and your pillow well away from your baby. Be sure there are no other items near your baby that could interfere with his breathing, be sure the mattress you are on is quite firm, and be sure baby is protected from entrapment of his head by the guardrail or headboard. We have a section on safe sleep-sharing in our books: The Baby Book and The Baby Sleep Book. Here are some do’s and don’t’s for cosleeping found on our website:
Practice Safe Cosleeping While Breastfeeding
Around the world, the most common nighttime parenting practice, by far, is mother sleeping close to baby. The same subconscious awareness of boundaries that keeps you from rolling off the bed will keep you from rolling over onto your baby. In some instances, however, infants have been harmed because of unwise and unsafe conditions. Observe these safety precautions.
• No smoking! If even one parent is a smoker, bed sharing is dangerous—smoking is a very significant risk factor for SIDS. Don’t allow any smokers near your baby, even when they are not smoking, since chemicals from tobacco on their breath or on their clothing are harmful to baby’s breathing.
• Place baby next to mother rather than between mother and father. While mothers are physically and mentally aware of baby’s presence while sleeping, fathers do not have that same sensitivity, so it is possible they could roll over or throw out an arm onto baby.
• Place baby to sleep on her back, the safest sleeping position and the one that gives baby easier access to the breast.
• Use a king-size bed with a firm mattress and a secure guardrail with no gap baby could slip into. Or, if you have a smaller bed, attach a crib securely alongside, flush with your mattress, with the crib rail partly up; or place the mattress on the floor away from other furniture. Avoid a headboard and a footboard, where baby can get entrapped in the space between the mattress and the board.
• Don’t sleep with your baby if you are under the influence of alcohol, drugs, sleeping pills, or other tranquilizing medications (including nighttime cold medicines and seizure-disorder medicines) that diminish your sensitivity to your baby’s presence.
• Use caution in falling asleep with your baby if you are obese or extremely large breasted.
• Avoid falling asleep with your baby in a recliner or on especially soft surfaces such as a couch, beanbag, wavy water bed (those without internal baffles), or any surface on which baby could get wedged in a crevice between the soft surface and mother’s breast. Keep baby’s face clear of pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals, and check that there are no ribbons or other objects that could choke an infant. Never put a baby to sleep on top of a pillow or soft, cushy bedding material, such as a comforter.
• Don’t wear lingerie with string ties longer than seven inches, and avoid dangling jewelry.
• Extremely long hair should be tied up. Avoid anything in which baby can get entangled. Check for objects in the bed.
• Babies one year of age and younger should not sleep with other children.
• Avoid overdressing and heavy blankets, which could cause overheating, and never cover baby’s head.
• Consider using an Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper bedside bassinet.
I was very worried about my level of awareness when I was asleep. So I usually cradled my baby in my arm or at least had her touching me somewhere. That seemed to heighten my awareness—or at least made me feel safer.
Sleep researcher Dr. James McKenna, professor of biological anthropology and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, has done extensive studies on the benefits of sleeping close to your baby. For further reading, consult Dr. McKenna’s Sleeping with Your Baby (2007) and enter the terms “Dr. James McKenna, safe co-sleeping guidelines” in your browser’s search window.