5 fears and facts about co-sleeping

March 2, 2020

Prior to parenthood, you have it all figured out: Folded onesies neatly line a drawer. A toy chest awaits filled with adorable stuffed animals. And, of course, you have the centerpiece of every newborn baby’s nursery: the crib. Then, baby arrives and all those best-laid plans fly straight out the window. The onesies are too small from birth, the toys go unnoticed and the crib collects dust when you, sleep-deprived and/or wanting to bond with your infant, turn to co-sleeping.

For some American families, co-sleeping — the practice of sleeping in close proximity to your newborn, including bed-sharing — is considered a no-no. It was for me. It wasn’t our intention to co-sleep, but by the second week of sleepless nights, my husband and I made the agonizing decision to consciously bring the baby into the bed with us — in spite of our fears. Turns out we’re not unique, and many parents find the benefits of safe co-sleeping.

We spoke to several parents who turned to co-sleeping about their biggest concerns early on and how bed-sharing ultimately turned out for them and their family. Alongside those concerns, we've also pulled in expert and study-based facts and information so you, too, can make the best choice for your family when it comes to co-sleeping, or not. 

Fear #1: No one does it

I’ll never forget our pediatrician’s exact words when I brought up co-sleeping as an option: “Do you want to kill your baby?” she asked. Well, no, I didn’t. But I was desperate for sleep, as was my husband.

And so our decision to co-sleep became our little secret. Even among other parents, we kept it mostly to ourselves. I figured other mothers followed the rules, sacrificing their own nocturnal needs or somehow miraculously getting their newborn babies to sleep soundly through the night.

The fact: Even though it’s discouraged, a lot of us are doing it.

According to one study, half of new mothers in the UK bed-share with their baby. Another study found 45% of infants in the U.S. spent at least some time at night on an adult bed in the last two weeks. And in most of the rest of the world, co-sleeping is an unquestioned practice.

Fear 2: Co-sleeping is dangerous

Dayton, Ohio, mom, A. Angel, has been co-sleeping with her now-4-year-old since the baby’s birth. In the beginning, she says, her biggest fear was rolling over on her infant. That never happened, Angel says, although she admits that when she allowed her newborn to sleep on her chest, a few times she rolled over and the baby ended up on the floor.  

“I woke up to a ‘thud’ and realized what I'd done,” she says.

The fact: The American Academy of Pediatrics says there are definite risks to bed-sharing, including suffocation.

But there are ways to make co-sleeping safer, according to James McKenna, director of Notre Dame’s Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory and author of “Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parents Guide to Co-Sleeping.”

Whether you’re co-sleeping or not, McKenna says, “Infants should always sleep on their backs, on firm surfaces, on clean surfaces, in the absence of (secondhand) smoke, under light (comfortable) blanketing, and their heads should never be covered.”

Fear #3: No one will get any sleep

Jordan Rosenfeld, a mom from Morgan Hill, California, says she subscribed to a lot of attachment parenting philosophies, including the idea that co-sleeping was preferential.

“But co-sleeping was the one thing I didn't want to do,” she says, “Because I am someone who does not function well on lack of sleep, and I was nervous I wouldn't sleep [well next to my child].”

But then, Rosenfeld says, “My son basically rejected sleeping by himself, and I was getting almost no sleep at all, so I brought him into bed with me, and we both slept better.”

The fact: In at least one laboratory study, the impact of bed-sharing on maternal sleep was found to be modest.

Moms’ REM sleep time was not effected, these researchers said — and from the infant's standpoint, the effects on maternal sleep were positive in as much as when mom was aroused, it was to monitor her child.

Fear #4: It will ruin your marriage

Hugo Schwyzer, a dad from Hermosa Beach, California, says that as his children got bigger, he began to fear he and his wife would start to use the fact that they were co-sleeping as an excuse to grow more distant from each other.

“The kid becomes a physical barrier and a psychological excuse to avoid sex, cuddling and so on,” Schwyzer says.

The fact: “The great thing about sex is that it doesn’t have to happen in the bedroom,” says Madison Young, sex educator and author of “The Ultimate Guide to Sex Through Pregnancy and Motherhood.”

Young is also a mom of a 2-year-old and an 8-year-old, both of whom she says she co-slept with at various points.

“Co-sleeping can actually spark the imagination of new and exciting places to have sex — the back seat of your car after a date night, in the living room while binging on your fave Netflix series or watching some hot feminist porn, in the kitchen up against the counter, even bathroom sex, laundry room sex! All super sexy,” Young says.

Fear #5: You’ll be co-sleeping until they goes off to college

Portland, Oregon, mom Marissa Korbel says she co-sleeps with her 4-year-old.

“Aside from maybe the first six months or so,” Korbel says. “She slept in her own crib until about age 3.5, when it became impossible to keep her in her bed at night. The biggest fear I have is that it will never end.”

“You want to know what happens when you co-sleep with your baby? They end up still sleeping with you at 9 years old,” says Jeanetta Muncrief, a mom in Yulee, Florida. “I know this from experience.”

The fact: Transitioning your baby out of your bed can be difficult.

It’s difficult but not impossible. I also feared we’d be co-sleeping forever. But when Oscar was about 8 months old, we coaxed him out of our bed and into his own crib. A month or so later, he was sleeping by himself in his own room.

The bottom line

Honestly? My husband and I both agree, it’s really nice to have our bed back. But also, neither of us regret sharing our bed when that’s what our baby needed.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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