Is co-sleeping safe for your baby?

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Co-sleeping - when mom and pop let kids sleep with them - is a night-time arrangement that has sparked much debate in parenting circles: it has many followers, some detractors and a few analysts. With their help, we decided to put the matter to rest once and for all


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Thu 9 Mar 2017, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 9 Feb 2023, 12:45 PM

Abbey Michelle Urbanski calls herself an "accidental co-sleeper". When the British expat first fell pregnant with Zachy two-and-a-half years ago, she and her husband did everything they believed they should to prepare for the arrival of their son - including buying him a big, beautiful cot. In Abbey's imagined world of happiness, she envisioned cosy night-time snuggles in Zachy's nursery, as she lovingly rocked him to sleep, before setting him down in his cot, where he would sleep soundly between nightly feeds. Well. let's just say that's not how things panned out.

Night-times were nightmares. "I used to dread them, because it was so hard to settle him at night," says the 28-year-old. "It would take hours to get him down into the cot - and then he'd be up again half an hour later." The couple thought it was "the done thing" to have their son in the cot and so they persevered, despite how sleep-deprived all of them were. But then Abbey started noticing how Zachy would "fall asleep like a dream" whenever she laid him next to her. The 'sound sleeps' she'd imagined prior to his arrival seemed to - finally! - be becoming a reality every time he shared a bed with her. And it was only after she researched the subject that she stopped feeling guilty for embracing that hotly debated, oft-frowned-upon parenting approach: co-sleeping with your child.

Oh, the judgement

Much has been made of the practice of sleeping with a newborn, with reports constantly pointing to health and safety hazards (what if you accidentally rolled over the child and suffocated him/her?), poor sleep habits in the kids (a 2015 study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics blamed bed-sharing for kids' frequent night awakenings) and even the cause of infant deaths.

But co-sleeping actually dates back to primitive eras and cultures, when mothers strapped their young to themselves as they moved about or worked. So, why the recent uptick in deriding what may well be the most natural practice in the world? A look at the origins of the backlash seems to point mostly to the Western world - specifically, to those who advocate instilling a sense of autonomy and independence in kids from a very early age. Abbey, for instance, recalls her mum always being "quite negative" about the practice. "A lot of her friends and people of her age group believed in transitioning the kids to their own bedrooms as soon as possible," she recalls.

With her training as a midwife, Dubai-based Amy Vogelaar often conducts sleep workshops, where she interacts with mums of all backgrounds who find the barrage of 'scientific studies' quite confusing - and the potential disapproval of their peers intimidating. "I always ask them to think about how we evolved," she explains, matter-of-factly. "Primitive humans didn't do so with their babies sleeping in a separate place. Some experts actually believe there may be evolutionary influences in why babies wake up so much; sleeping lightly, waking often for feeds - it may be what they need to do to stay safe at night."

Amy's own experience with her firstborn - now 12 - was exhausting. "She was a Velcro baby," laughs the mum-of-two, who chose to snuggle up with both her children till they were at least a couple of years old. "I had a very difficult time with her, because she would only sleep on my chest, and only for a couple of hours."

But she chose to co-sleep nonetheless, because that's what worked best for the kids. "Everybody needs to find their own arrangement," she says. "The problem is that people feel judged: they're constantly told that they're creating bad habits in their kids, setting themselves up for their kids refusing to sleep alone, endangering the children. it's all very confusing. But co-sleeping itself isn't new - what's new is that we worry about it so much."

HAPPY BABY, HAPPY MUMMY: (left to right) Abbey with her son, Zachy; Amy Vogelaar; Joanne Jewell

Debunking the myths

Perhaps one of the scariest suggestions for new parents is that bed-sharing could lead to SIDS or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. While studies have been unable to pinpoint co-sleeping as the actual cause, they have noted possible links between the two - it's enough to give any parent pause. But advocates of co-sleeping remain undeterred, citing "no actual evidence".

Amy, for instance, argues that Japanese parents have co-slept with their kids for ages and still have one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the industrial world (the World Bank puts the figure at two deaths per 1,000 live births). Abbey, on the other hand, says she just went with her maternal instincts. "I was always very conscious of where Zachy was on our bed, so this was never really a problem for me. We always removed the pillows and the duvet, and made sure everyone was dressed appropriately, so it was never too hot or too cold." If anything, she says, she always felt less anxious when the kid was next to her. "If he was in his cot, I'd have been checking on him all the time, just to make sure he was breathing and alright!"

There are different ways to co-sleep for those worried about accidentally squashing their child, points out Joanne Jewell, founder of Mindful Parenting. "Co-sleeping doesn't necessarily mean a baby sleeping in the same bed as the parents. For many people, it means the baby or child sleeping in close proximity, which could be in a cot or a bed next to or close to them, or a side car arrangement where a separate mattress is attached to the bed."

What about the idea that kids need to learn to 'self-soothe' right from the start as a way to promote early independence? (Remember Meet the Fockers, where Jack takes Greg's case for not allowing his grandson to learn to do this - even if it meant listening to him bawl his head off for a while?) "It's a nice concept, but science doesn't really support the idea," says Amy, whose kids still slip into bed with her if they're unwell. "A child pushed away and made to learn [independence] forcibly in their formative years will probably find it more difficult to self-soothe than those who've been given that comfort and reassurance in the first couple of years."

Joanne believes it's important to develop self-reliance - but it must be done in an age-appropriate way. "By the age of eight, a child is able to develop self-soothing strategies with the help of their parents; sleeping alone and being able to settle themselves back to sleep if they wake up during the night are indicators of this. Kids around this age do experience nightmares related to their greater awareness of the world and may need additional support from parents during the night [which may include co-sleeping]. However, this doesn't mean that they can't self-soothe if they are supported in this way."

Bye-bye, pillow talk?

In comes the little bundle of joy, out goes the romance. Many new mums and dads find it challenging to achieve a successful balance in their lives (or indeed, any 'couple time' at all) with the arrival of a newborn - especially if they're sharing a bed with the tot. Joanne notes that maintaining a healthy relationship with your partner is important and it can be done "whilst still meeting the needs of your children, if the couple remains honest and open with each other and puts energy into the relationship". Exactly how this is achieved depends on the couple.

Many couples tell of how a co-sleeping arrangement can lead to tensions in their personal equation, because one spouse wants to keep the baby close and the other does not. Incidentally, it's not always the mother who is keen to have the child remain near either. "There is a couple I'm currently working with: the dad is very keen on co-sleeping - partly because he doesn't get much time with his new baby - and the mum feels that she'd really like some time to herself at night," says Joanne. "After discussions, the solution was more self-care for the mum, as she was feeling exhausted. The dad would, in the meanwhile, sleep closest to the baby until he/she woke up for the night feed, at which point the couple swapped places. So far, this is working well and both parents are happy."

Abbey is eight weeks pregnant with her second child, so jokes that romance is definitely not dead, just because you have a child around all the time. With a new sibling on the way, Zachy has now graduated to his "toddler bed, of which he is very possessive" but he still likes to wake up at night and slip into his parents' bed for snuggles. As anyone who has slept with a toddler will testify, there's bound to be "arms and legs everywhere", but Abbey promises there's nothing quite like waking up to the warm scent of your baby next to you every morning.

Thinking of co-sleeping? Read this first!

. If you can, discuss your views about co-sleeping with your partner before your baby is born and reach an agreement during this stage, so you can make preparations to co-sleep in a safe way that works for everyone.

. Having babies co-sleep on a separate surface to their parents is highly recommended by both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the UK NICE guidelines, so take this into consideration when you are making plans.

. Smoking is highly advised against, by all medical organisations, for parents who plan to co-sleep - another good reason to quit smoking!

- Joanne Jewell, Founder, Mindful Parenting

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