Nora Campbell* didn't plan to share her bed with her infant. When she and her husband, Will, brought home their first baby, Samantha, they had a bassinet. A crib was on the way. They were prepared. Or at least they thought they were.
"That first night, we just couldn't get her to sleep in the bassinet," she recalls. "Every time we set her down, she'd cry. We were basically up all night."
They kept trying. They'd walk her around, bounce on a yoga ball, swaddle and swing her. It felt like nothing worked. Finally, exhausted, they'd bring her to bed.
"It just didn't seem worth it to put everyone through all that torture," Nora says.
Is there a safe way to co-sleep?
That's a common experience for new parents, says Ann Halbower, MD, a sleep expert at Children's Hospital Colorado. In a 2015 survey of mothers in Colorado, Dr. Halbower and colleagues found that, while almost all of them knew bed-sharing was unsafe, almost all bed-shared anyway. Bed-sharing felt easier, even safer.
"It felt very safe knowing she was right there," says Nora.
"We've learned from those answers," Dr. Halbower says, "and we're trying to be positive. We're saying, hey, there is a way to co-sleep safely, and what we mean is pulling the bassinet up to the bed, so the baby's right there, but also in their own safe environment: no pillows, no blankets, nothing in there except the baby."
That's so important, Dr. Halbower says, because babies have essentially no muscle. Many parents fear rolling over onto the baby, but it's actually more common for the baby to roll into bedding or the parent and get stuck. They can't roll out or even turn their heads. Of 263 sleep-related infant deaths in Colorado between 2009 and 2013, not one occurred in a safe sleep environment.
Babies should be dressed in a onesie or sleep sack and put to sleep on their back on a firm sleep surface in their own crib or bassinet. They should not be put to sleep in a sitting device, such as car seats, bouncers or swings.
The difference between bed-sharing, co-sleeping and room-sharing
The term “co-sleeping” refers to a parent and baby sleeping in the same room, which includes bed-sharing and room-sharing. Room-sharing (when a baby sleeps in their own bassinet or crib next to a parent’s bed) is considered safe and encouraged by safe sleep experts.
However, bed-sharing (when a baby sleeps in the same bed as their parents) is discouraged by safe sleep experts as it can lead to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Safer sleep, better sleep for babies
Babies not only sleep safer in their own space — they sleep better.
"We've done sleep studies with babies hooked up to EEG and we can see that, when parents are holding the baby, rocking them, carrying them around, they're preventing them from going to sleep," Dr. Halbower says. "They're actually keeping them awake."
That might be why rates of infant sleep problems are higher among first-time parents. Parents with more kids to care for might be more likely to put the baby in a crib and walk away just out of necessity.
The dangers of bed-sharing
Even so, rates of accidental sleep suffocation are rising — in tandem with rates of bed-sharing, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations. Why? At least part of the fault probably lies with misinformation. Studies in 2002 and 2006 found that not even medical professionals consistently recommended AAP safe sleep guidelines. Confronted with conflicting information, new parents use their own best judgment.
But the facts are consistent: bed-sharing isn't safe. "When you're in a deep sleep," says Dr. Halbower, "you just can't know if that baby's gotten stuck."
For Nora's part, she admits her efforts to keep her bed safe for Samantha came at a cost. For two years, she and Will didn't use blankets. For the first six months, they didn't even use pillows.
"I don't know if I'd do it again," she says.
* Names changed to protect privacy