Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives

Being near your baby at night is vital

Posted Sep 01, 2013

Most of the time when cosleeping (same room) and bedsharing (same bed) with babies are discussed, the focus is on their dangers (smothering). But there are numerous reported benefits. The research program of James McKenna has provided multiple glimpses into the benefits (see his website here).

One of the benefits of being near the baby is waking the baby up if s/he stops breathing. In a 2007 paper, McKenna and Volpe present qualitative research. The paper includes numerous quotes from families that co-slept or bedshared.

Several families wrote about their experiences saving their baby’s life because they were near enough to notice that the baby had stopped breathing. Here are several of the cases from the parents themselves (from pp. 377-380). Notice how the parents followed their caregiving intuitions.

(1) N. our 5 yr old son throughout his first year of life would for no reason we knew of, just stop breathing. When we would rouse him he would then gasp for air. N. now has serious asthma. We think and the Dr. agrees that this was possibly a pre-asthma situation he was going through; I believe without such careful monitoring and also just the constant motion of people around him in bed we could have had serious consequences. END

(2) We co-sleep with our 2 year old son. When he was 5 months old one night I awoke to some moving and noticed my son was blue. There was NOTHING around him and he was on top of the blanket in a shirt and not breathing. I picked him up and gave him some thumps on his back and he started crying. We took him to the hosp and the Dr concluded he must have had a mucus plug. Had he been in his own bed I would not have known and I would have lost him. From that day on we were FIRM believers in co-sleeping. If my son were to have passed that night I would have had comfort knowing that his last scent was of his parents, his last meal was my milk, and he was not alone. He was surrounded by love. I pray to God that he let us keep him and I am so thankful I had become lazy in my parenting and just left him in bed with me. END

(3) She had obvious cessations of breathing and would choke while sleeping and upon awakening numerous times. It was quite frightening and happened even until the age of sleeping upright in an infant car seat when she was of the weight to change to one. This choking never happened while awake. It was also worse when flat on her back so I often slept half upright against a bed pillow with her tummy to tummy with me on my chest. This kept her airway clear. Being prone at a 45 degree angle seemed the best for her, especially when teething, as she had a lot of mucous accompanying a feverish state with each tooth. END

(4) I believe our youngest would not be alive today had she slept out of our sight. She was a foster child placed with us at birth. Diagnosed IUGR (5#, full term), she thrived for 8 weeks. She then developed an occasional cough...the cough itself was frightening, but it occurred only two or three times a day. There was no fever or other symptom, and she looked and behaved normally between coughing spells. I slept with her propped up on my chest the last two nights before she was hospitalized with pertussis (which took two days of outpatient testing to diagnose-testing that was done only because my pediatrician trusted my judgment that this was an atypical cough.) I believe that had she slept elsewhere she would have quietly choked to death any night that week before diagnosis. (So many parents of SIDS babies say, 'She only had a little cough.') END

(5) When our older boy was about 6 weeks old, I woke to find him choking next to me. He was on his back, had spit up, and could not clear his mouth. He didn't make a sound- I don't know what woke me. I rolled him on his side, the spit-up came out, and he was fine. I honestly don't know if he could have cleared it himself or not. I DO know that had he been in another room I would not have woken up to help him.END

(6) I did not co-sleep by design with my first child until he was about nine months old. Looking back this nine month period was the only time I think co-sleeping might have been dangerous. (My child had a short frenulum which was diagnosed by his pediatrician and commented on by a nurse when he was newborn but no one knew that this could give him trouble with breastfeeding. Since he was such an inefficient nurser he had to be at the breast almost continuously day and night This turned out to be a blessing because it ensured that I had to learn to co-sleep with him which in turn ensured all our babies reaped the benefits of co-sleeping.) Although I tried to do the typical American thing- get him to sleep in a crib- I was utterly unsuccessful at this and he never spent more than 10-20 minutes in it a night I would nurse sitting up in bed (a bed on a frame, with a footboard and a headboard) trying to stay awake so I could put him back in the crib when he seemed asleep. This was exhausting and I once dropped him when I fell asleep sitting up, and he fell out of the bed onto the floor. After that episode I abandoned the idea of trying to stay awake while nursing...! took my bed apart, put the mattress on the floor, and began to nurse while lying on my side. When my child was about nine months old I completely abandoned the idea of getting him to sleep in a crib which was the beginning of our family's liberation from the sleep nazis.END

(7) M., at age 2 months, was sleeping propped up because of gastroesophageal reflux. She once fell off the little mattress we were using to prop her up with, and was hanging off it, face down. I immediately woke up (interestingly, because I had a dream where my son V. told me to wake up because M. was in danger) and was able to place her on her back. V. has woken up, on a couple of occasions, with a fairly severe case of croup, almost being unable to breathe. I doubt that we would have been able to hear him if he would have been sleeping in another room. Whenever they are ill, having them right next to me lets me know, all through the night, that they are okay, and not in any kind of danger. Sleeping with them next to me also allows the sick child to nurse as much as she needs to during the night Both children wake up a bit at night and, if not in immediate contact with our bodies, reach out to feel us, making sure that we're there. I could not imagine them reaching out in an empty bed. END

To read more parent accounts and about the study, refer to the article (link below).

And tell us your own story.

Of course, one must practice safe sleeping with infants. For more on safe sleeping, see here. (See other references below.)

ADDENDUM: McKenna and Volpe also note the political aspects of co-sleeping, which is biased towards mischaracterizing infant deaths that do occur, noting that in the USA:  "in addition  to having a negative view of co-sleeping, coroners are also more likely to diagnose  the death of an infant dying  in a crib as a SIDS while   diagnosing  a  baby  dying   in  an  adult   bed  as  a  probable   asphyxial suffocation  or accidental  overlay  (O'Hara  & Harruff, 2000)....Even  solitary  sleeping  infant  deaths  on  beds  are categorized  as  bedsharing deaths  by the CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] researchers  in the USA and  it is common  to find  that  the 'cause'  of an infant's  death  is explained  without  knowledge or reference to any actual or real behavioural  circumstance or condition within  which the beds were used." (McKenna & Volpe, 2007, p. 362)

Reference

McKenna, J.J., & Volpe, L.E. (2007). Sleeping With Baby: An Internet­ Based Sampling of Parental Experiences, Choices, Perceptions, and Interpretations in a Western Industrialized Context. Infant and. Child Development,. 16: 359-385. DOWNLOAD THE PAPER HERE

SLEEP SERIES

  1. Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes “Experts” and Parents Make
  2. 'Let Crying Babes Lie'? So Wrong
  3. Simple Ways to Calm a Crying Baby
  4. Normal, Human Infant Sleep: Feeding Method and Development
  5. Normal Infant Sleep: Changing Patterns
  6. Normal Parent Behaviors and Why They Won’t Hurt Your Child
  7. Normal Infant Sleep: Night Nursing's Importance
  8. More Normal Parenting for Sleep
  9. Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep
  10. Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep-Tiredness?
  11. Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep--Preparing Success
  12. SIDS: Risks and Realities
  13. Bed Sharing With Babies: What is the Hype About?
  14. Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives