Can Co-Sleeping Cause Problems? Or Are the Benefits More Than Worth It?

When it comes to the question of where your baby should sleep, it can be easy to get lost in the debate. That’s because co-sleeping, or sleeping in the same bed as one’s parents, has been extensively studied by the medical profession without clear results that tell parents whether it is beneficial or harmful. To better understand the state of the science behind co-sleeping and why many doctors discourage the practice, you need to understand the research on both sides. That way, it will be easier for you to make a decision for your family.

It’s worth noting that the reason why the science is so hard to follow is because the science around sleep is a little bit fuzzy as it is. That makes it difficult to know for sure which variables in someone’s sleep pattern are having the biggest effect on the outcomes. For example, a study might find that co-sleeping couples have children with more sleep problems, but the reasons that families co-sleep often revolve around existing sleep problems, so care must be taken to control for changes that happen during the co-sleeping experiment. Unfortunately, not every research study does this, which is why it is important to weigh the evidence carefully.

Co-sleeping mother and baby child.

Co-sleeping mother and baby child.

The Case Against Co-Sleeping

A rather large number of doctors and pediatricians recommend against co-sleeping on safety grounds. In fact, fear of smothering or sudden infant death syndrome are the most-often cited criticisms of the practice. MedicineNet points out that this is also the official stance of the American Association of Pediatricians. Their own materials point out that while co-sleeping is not inherently bad, it can be quite dangerous without the right precautions, and that is why the general recommendation is that parents avoid it.

There are certainly a number of cautionary tales when it comes to co-sleeping, too, and they include stories like this one from the Daily Mail, which discusses one time when a mother woke to find her infant far under the duvet. The parent in the article does not know whether she relocated the child or the child migrated, but either way, it is easy to see how panic could set in upon waking alone when one fell asleep next to a child who is too young to get in and out of the bed on their own.

That same article discusses a comprehensive review of co-sleeping studies and SIDS that concluded that 88 percent of the 1,500 cases reviewed would likely not have happened in a situation where co-sleeping did not occur. In the article, this is linked to “attachment parenting,” which is fair because a good number of the supporters of co-sleeping also participate in the practice and advocate for it. It then attempts to assert that pressure on women to breastfeed has risen without including any evidence, though, and it asserts the claim that this has led to the rise in co-sleeping. Both of those claims should be viewed with skepticism, as they are not sourced at all.

Outside of the safety concerns espoused by many doctors in several countries, there are also concerns that co-sleeping could cause more sleep problems than it helps to solve. This is backed up by a study, discussed here by a co-parenting advocate that demonstrated sleep problems developing in a large number of children who participated in co-sleeping from the age of 6 months to the age of 18 months. The children in the study, which was released by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, all had normal sleeping patterns at 6 months of age, but had developed shorter sleep durations and more periods of wakefulness than other children by the end of the study.

One other concern, which is less safety related and more related to the practice’s effects on the parents. Co-sleeping does mean that often, your toddler’s bedtime becomes your bedtime as well, and that can place serious lifestyle restrictions on parents. Often, it also causes parents to be more restless in their sleep, because young children toss and turn a lot. Keep that in mind before you take the plunge into co-sleeping, because even if the safety problems are dealt with, there are a number of other practical concerns, too.

The Case for Co-Parenting

One of the biggest reasons why co-parenting has been on the rise so strongly is because there are very easy to identify ways parents can handle the issues that arise from co-sleeping. Numerous articles exist on the correct safety precautions to use when co-sleeping, and medical experts like Dr. Sears have gone out of their way to produce practice-based research that is designed to bring the benefits that studies on co-sleeping have found without the drawbacks that they often come with. There are a number of benefits that are cited by its practitioners:

  • Better sleep, in terms of sleep quality, for both mother and child
  • Easier access for nighttime nursing
  • Helps children fall asleep faster and stay asleep
  • Builds a sense of intimacy when parents are away for much of the day

The biggest issue with these claims is that “better” sleep tends to be a term that is a bit hard to understand, and the claims about “better” sleep contradict many of the studies that find co-sleeping leads to more wakefulness. In order to understand what is meant by “better” sleep, you need to understand what the researchers who document the practice’s benefits are finding. Dr. Sears outlines the results he has seen in co-sleeping experiments:

  • Babies fall asleep more easily and stay asleep more easily because they have not developed object permanence, which means they do not know upon waking that they are only temporarily alone, this can cause anxiety, and that can lead to disrupted sleep.
  • Mothers sleep better, because often they learn to comfort the child without having to rise to full wakefulness. Babies also get that comfort immediately, rather than persisting in distress until the mother returns.
  • Breastfeeding becomes easier. Many women report that being able to get the baby feeding as soon as squirming starts can prevent full wakefulness, making it easier to go right back to bed after.
  • Co-sleeping reduces the risk of SIDS. Despite the findings in the UK that showed that 1,500 SIDS deaths might have been prevented if co-sleeping did not occur with them, other studies have shown that the rate of SIDS is lower among those who co-sleep than in the population at large.

Some of these results contradict the findings that are touted by opponents of the practice, but that is because scientific studies are not absolute results. They need to be repeated, with different variables controlled for and by different practitioners, until patterns emerge. Like so many areas of sleep science, though, these patterns are not yet firm enough for the medical community to come to an exact position on the practice of co-sleeping.

What is worthwhile to note, though, is that while the opponents of co-sleeping are quick to point to drawbacks and side-effects that they believe should end the practice, the supporters of co-sleeping acknowledge that different sleeping styles work for different children. By and large, the ones producing research and documenting how to achieve the best results are also noting that this is an optional practice that could help some people, not a recommendation that fits everyone.

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