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Co-Sleeping with Baby: Get the Facts

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Updated on Feb 23, 2012

When couples find themselves with a new bundle of joy, it's no surprise they want him close—between midnight feedings and bleary-eyed diaper changes, having your baby co-sleeping with you can sound like an excellent idea.

Fast forward nine months later. You and your partner feel frazzled and exhausted, and the baby refuses to sleep anywhere but right next to mama—leaving you in a constant fog from lack of sleep. Suddenly, giving your infant his very own crib sounds like it could provide a much-needed break.

Co-sleeping has become a popular sleeping option for many parents, but the decision to co-sleep is one fraught with controversy. Parents and experts who advocate the approach say that co-sleeping makes nursing easier and creates a strong bond between parents and child. Opponents say it causes marital stress, overly dependent children, and can even increase the risk of SIDs. So what's a parent to do? If you're considering co-sleeping, read on to learn the latest advice from the experts:

  • Do your research. Everyone has an opinion, so it's crucial you get the facts before chatting it up with other new parents. Read books on both sides of the argument, such as Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent's Guide to Cosleeping by Dr. James McKenna and Break the Co-Sleeping Habit: How to Set Bedtime Boundaries—and Raise a Secure, Happy, Well-Adjusted Child by Dr. Valerie Levine. Once you've learned each side's reasons for defended their sleeping arrangements, you'll be able to recognize which method will work best for your family. If you're still confused, jot down a list of questions, then talk to your pediatrician and fellow parents for more insight on the co-sleeping debate.
  • Understand the risks. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to sleep in the same room with infants, which may decrease the risk of SIDS. Researchers have found that young babies who sleep in the same room as a parent have more predictable breathing patterns, possibly because the sound of a parent's breath stimulates their own breathing. On the other hand, sleeping in a parent's bed can increase the risk of death due to smothering. Knowing these risks can help you create a safe sleeping arrangement for your little one.
  • Know your options. When people think of co-sleeping, they tend to think of an infant sleeping in the same bed as the parents, but you actually have a lot of other choices. Babies can sleep in a crib or bassinet in the parents' room, or even in a specially made co-sleeping bassinet attached securely to the parents' bed. Dr. McKenna, sleep expert and director of the Mother-Infant Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, recommends the ArmsReach co-sleeper as an ideal co-sleeping option. Visit a store specializing in baby equipment to check out the latest co-sleepers, bassinets and cribs, and talk with friends about their experiences.
  • Make the decision together. The decision to co-sleep is one that couples should make jointly, since both will be impacted. If one partner's excited about co-sleeping and the other isn't, the relationship will likely suffer. In fact, marriage and family psychotherapist Sharon Gilchrest says she's never seen a co-sleeping arrangement that strengthened a marriage. She says, "Co-sleeping is sometimes used by one partner seeking to avoid intimacy in the marriage, rather than working on issues as a couple." Talk with your partner about where to put baby to sleep so you're both on the same page.
  • Negotiate changes. Many couples love co-sleeping with their baby initially, but feel worn out after a few months. As baby grows and becomes more active, she'll likely keep you up more. You may also find that you miss time alone with your partner. If you decide to co-sleep, remember that it's okay to change your mind if it's not working. Pediatrician Sunit Gill recommends that parents move baby to his own crib by six months of age. Check in with your partner frequently and speak up if you're not happy, so you can work together to come up with a solution that everyone can live with.
  • Create a safe sleeping environment. By creating a safe sleeping environment, you'll reduce the risks of SIDS so you can all sleep better. Dr. McKenna says that the safest sleeping arrangement for an infant is usually on a separate sleeping surface, such as a co-sleeper bassinet, in the same room as the parents. If you choose to sleep with your baby, remove extra bedding, deep pillows or other items that might pose a suffocation risk. Never sleep with your baby after drinking alcohol or taking sleep-inducing medications, and don't sleep with your baby on a couch or allow infants to sleep in a bed with other children. On the other hand, if you decide to use a crib or bassinet, choose one with a tightly fitting mattress. The slats should be no more than 2 3/8 inch wide, which is about the width of a soda can. Avoid old cribs, which often contain lead paint or lack safety features. And most importantly, put your baby to bed on his back. This simple step is one of the most important things you can do to keep your baby safe.

When deciding whether to co-sleep or not, your baby's safety is your first concern—but your ability to get a good night's sleep should rank a close second. Many parents who co-sleep with baby report that they sleep better knowing their little one's close by. Other parents sleep better when baby's tucked safely in a crib. Either way, a well-rested parent is better able to nurture and care for baby during the day.

Where to put your newborn infant to sleep is a highly personal decision, and no one solution works for every parent. However, for most parents, the option to share their room but not their bed seems to work best. Baby sleeps safely and parents can get their zzz's—the ideal arrangement for a good night's sleep.

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