I’ve been thinking about bedsharing and sleep safety for the last few months. I have devoted an entire chapter of my book to this topic. Not only is it an important question for parents, but it’s an issue with so much complexity — wrinkles and folds of factors like breastfeeding, bonding, instinct, culture, and just plain reality.
I think it is vitally important to understand the relationship between bedsharing behavior and risk of SIDS and accidental deaths. But our ability to tease apart every factor that might impact sleep safety is imperfect; there will always be factors that aren’t quantified in these studies, not to mention the fact that case control studies have some inherent limitations. You’ve probably heard about the study published this week by Carpenter et al. in BMJ. It combines 5 historic case control data sets from Europe, the U.K., and Australasia to specifically look at the risk of bedsharing in breastfed babies in nonsmoking households. It concludes that bedsharing poses an increased risk of SIDS, even in these ideal situations. I think it’s an important study, but it also has some limitations and doesn’t answer all of our questions with certainty. In fact, no study will probably ever do that. (You can read some critiques of the Carpenter study here and here.)
But even if we accept that bedsharing increases a baby’s risk of dying unexpectedly during sleep, we still have to answer the bigger question of how we translate this information to families living in the real, difficult world of infant sleep. Many families value bedsharing as a cultural practice; others choose it because it feels right. Still others bedshare because it is the only way that anyone gets any sleep at night, and we all know that sleep deprivation carries some risk, too, as does falling asleep on a couch with your baby. This is the reality.
Pediatricians face this reality in their clinics every day, when they talk with parents of new babies about sleep. In my book, one of the questions I explore is how pediatricians handle this conversation, given that their professional organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends against bedsharing. Several months ago, I sent some questions to one of my favorite pediatrician bloggers, Dr. Melissa Arca of Confessions of a Dr. Mom. She had initially agreed to a Q&A, but then she didn’t respond with her answers. It was the height of the busy flu season, and I figured that she was just busy. Then, this week, she surprised me with her responses. She had been thinking about bedsharing given the news of this recent study, and she was inspired to restart this conversation. We’ve cross-posted our Q&A on both our blogs. Check out her post for more about her initial hesitancy to address these questions, and please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.
Alice: How did sleep look for your two children?
Melissa: My first child was a challenge to say the least. He is the one who made me question the safety of bed-sharing in the first place. For the first 6 months of his life, sleep was virtually non-existent (or at least that’s the way it felt to me) because he needed my arms and constant soothing throughout the night. But I was terrified to bedshare. I was literally at the end of my sleep deprivation rope. I had tried everything. And instead of listening to my instincts, I was fighting them. Because I was scared.
I never envisioned myself as a bedsharing parent. As a pediatrician, I was adamantly against it. But it was exactly what my baby needed and we struggled and limped along until I finally realized that.
My second child was a breeze and that’s no lie. She was always (and still is) an “easy sleeper”. She needed her space and showed clear signs of being tired. When she was tired, that was it. I didn’t need to bedshare with her. She slept in her own bassinet next to our bed during her first few months of life before being transitioned to her own room.
They could not have been more different in the sleep department. Same parents. Same environment. Different children.
Alice: As a pediatrician, how did you feel about bedsharing before having children? Did becoming a mother change that?
Melissa: I didn’t think it was safe. At all. I had read the studies and the official recommendations. Back to sleep, crib and/or bassinet in the same room with no hazards such as loose bedding, pillows, etc.
I never thought in a million years I would have become a bedsharing parent. But kids don’t have our same agendas. Continue reading