Bed-sharing with Young Infants: Is It Safe After All?

Does bed-sharing with infants increase their risk of SIDS, even without known risk factors such as alcohol use, smoking, and co-sleeping on a couch or chair? A recent study makes what is probably the best attempt to date to answer this question. The study, led by U.K. researcher Peter Blair, was published last week in the journal PLOS ONE and is freely available to the public (yay!).1

mother and baby

How you bed share can make a big difference to safety. Co-sleeping on couches, alcohol use, and smoking are all very risky. The mom in the photo could keep her baby safer by removing the swaddle and ensuring that her baby sleeps on his back.

Many studies have found that co-sleeping is associated with an increased risk of SIDS, but most of this risk doesn’t come from co-sleeping per se, but rather doing so in particularly hazardous conditions, such as on a couch or with a parent who has been drinking. However, there’s an important, albeit controversial, caveat to this conclusion. Several studies have looked specifically at infants younger than 3 months and still found a significant risk of bed-sharing even in the absence of these other risk factors.2–6 The current study comes to conclusions much more reassuring to bed-sharing parents. In this study, bed-sharing without alcohol, smoking, or couch/chair co-sleeping was not associated with a significant SIDS risk in infants younger than 3 months and even seemed to be protective in older babies. Both of these findings run counter to previous studies and to the sleep recommendations of the AAP, so they deserve a close look.

How was the study conducted? Continue reading

SIDS and Bedsharing: A Pediatrician’s Perspective

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

Book Talk: Sleep Choices

Photo Credit: Lori Cole

Photo Credit: Lori Cole

I’m working on the sleep chapters of my book right now. I had originally planned one sleep chapter, but I’m realizing that it’s such a huge topic that it needs to be split into two chapters: one on the question of where baby should sleep and one on sleep strategies and sleep training.

I have been focusing on the question of bedsharing for the last several weeks. I have read the major studies associating bedsharing with SIDS and suffocation and studied the professional opinions of those recommending against bedsharing from a public health perspective. I have also read the studies coming from James McKenna, Helen Ball, and others that take a more holistic view of bedsharing. These authors talk about bedsharing as the cultural and physiological norm for human infants, particularly in the context of breastfeeding. They advocate for a more tempered view of bedsharing safety, one that recognizes that all bedsharing situations are not alike and that, though not proven, it is certainly possible that a safe bedsharing environment can exist.

I’m trying to understand both the science and the controversy of this topic. There are the data, and there are the people analyzing it and interpreting it. Reading these papers, I get the feeling that it is difficult to find someone conducting research in this field who isn’t at least a little invested in the outcome. I wonder if these guys ever sit in the same room together and talk it out, because it feels like they are coming from different planets. There’s the epidemiology planet, where numbers rule and nuance is scorned. (And don’t get me wrong – I’m a numbers girl – but I can see the limitations in them here.) Then there’s the anthropology planet, a beautiful land of skin-to-skin, breast milk, and perfect physiological attunement between mother and babe. In my opinion, neither world completely represents the reality facing new parents in today’s world.

I wonder, for example, if the members of the AAP committee, which recommends against bedsharing, have ever cared for a baby who had extreme difficulty sleeping alone. And I wonder if the anthropologists have ever cared for a baby who wanted her own space, perhaps needing a break from all that day-and-night sensory input. I have met both types of babies, and as parents, I think we have to recognize that their needs are not the same.

In the real world, lots of factors determine how different families handle sleep. Infant temperament is one of them. Safety is another. There are also cultural expectations, family dynamics, work schedules, parenting styles, and feeding methods to factor in. Where baby sleeps is a complex parenting decision, one that is exceedingly difficult to study in a quantitative manner.

As I’m writing this chapter, I’m trying to present the science in a balanced way. I also recognize that this parenting decision – and most of them for that matter – can never be reduced to science and statistics. Parenting is about people and their stories. I know that I need to understand those stories as well as the science to write a worthwhile book.

So, I’m hoping you can help me.

Help me understand WHY your babies slept where they did – in your bed or in a crib or some combination of the two. What factors were important in your decision? Did your baby sleep where you had planned, or did you have to adjust your expectations? What worked well about your arrangement, and what didn’t?

I may be interested in including some of your stories in my book, but I’ll send you a direct email if that’s the case. Thank you – as always – for sharing your stories!

 

New Research on Bedsharing and Infant Breathing

Berthe Morisot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A study published online last week [1] in the journal Pediatrics gives new information on the breathing environment for bedsharing and crib-sleeping infants. Dr. Sally Baddock and colleagues from the University of Otago in New Zealand conducted the study.

This study included 40 routinely bedsharing infants and 40 routinely crib-sleeping infants, all of which were healthy and between 0 and 6 months old. Few mothers in the study were smokers, and most of them breastfed.

The infants and mothers were videotaped on two consecutive nights. On the second night, the babies were also fitted with several sensors for physiological measurements. Their blood oxygen was measured by pulse oximetry. Other sensors measured breathing rate, and thermometers measured body temperature during the night. The air in the space directly around the infant was also sampled periodically through a small tube attached to the infant’s face. Although these measurements bring to mind a picture of lots of tubes and wires, the authors say, “All leads were secured to allow mothers to handle infants freely during the night.”

The purpose of the study was to better understand the breathing environment for bedsharing and crib-sleeping infants. Specifically, the study reported two main measures: Continue reading

Infant Sleep Research: Bedsharing, Self-Soothing, and Sleep Training

This is the fifth post in my sleep series. In my last post, I discussed how my view of infant sleep has evolved to be more inclusive of a wide range of solutions that can work in different families. In this post, I look at what the research tells us about infant sleep across the spectrum of nighttime parenting philosophies.

[Please note: It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the bedsharing/crib/SIDS/suffocation debate, but suffice it to say that parents should pay careful attention to making baby’s sleep environment safe, whether the baby bedshares or sleeps in a crib.]

Bedsharing Infant Sleep

Let’s say that you choose to bedshare. You feel that the best place for your baby is right by your side, in your own bed. (I use the term “bedsharing,” because the more commonly used “cosleeping” can also mean sharing a room but sleeping on separate surfaces.) Many parents choose to bedshare because it just feels right, even if they had carefully prepared a crib before the baby’s arrival. BabyC slept in my bed for a couple of weeks early in her life, though it was not my plan and ultimately ended up not being the choice that Husband and I made. Still, in those weeks, I felt a real shift in my bond with BabyC. It certainly made breastfeeding during the night easier, and it was sweet to wake up and watch her sleeping next to me. I understand the choice to bedshare, and I think that for many families, it can have numerous benefits. These benefits are not well-defined by research, however. For example, I have yet to find study that investigates if bedsharing actually increases infant attachment. Continue reading

Sleep Solutions for Every Baby

This is my fourth post in my evolving series on infant sleep.

I have at least 100 journal articles on sleep saved on my computer, and I’ve been dutifully slogging through them, trying to systematically summarize the effects of different sleep training methods or otherwise. But… yawn. I myself didn’t get enough sleep last night. And besides, I keep coming back to all of your many comments – your stories about how sleep works in your house and why you like it that way. They remind me that the best parenting philosophy is the one that makes sense to you, the one that gives you a framework within which to guide your interactions with your child, and the one that makes you love your job as a parent. I’ve come to realize that we can’t talk about sleep without first acknowledging our diverse philosophies on the subject. I’d like to discuss that a bit more in this post, and my next post will be chock-full of the science on cosleeping and sleep training.

Photo Credit: Lori Cole

Sleep is so personal, and yet, it can so often feel like someone is telling us that we’re doing it wrong. This topic triggers such strong emotions, from guilt and shame to defensiveness and judgment. If you haven’t experienced this, take a look at the conversation on blog posts like this one and this one. It is actually kind of embarrassing that we are so darn hard on each other when we talk about infant sleep. Why is that? Continue reading