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Co-Sleeping is Safe, Despite Alarmist Media Claims

Photo by KekkaCo-sleeping is safe, despite alarmist media claims

Co-sleeping is safe, despite alarmist media claims

Many of our readers and writers have safely slept with their infants, babies, and toddlers for many years.  Co-sleeping is one aspect of attachment parenting, and in western cultures, it comes with controversy.  Natural Papa explains:

Co-sleeping is one of the principles of attachment parenting, and also one of the most contentious. For those who practice it, it’s normal and healthy. For those who don’t, it’s dangerous and irresponsible.

“You really let your baby sleep in the same bed with you? Isn’t that dangerous?”

The Eight Principles of Attachment Parenting include “Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally”, which includes co-sleeping:

It’s important to note that infant solitary sleep is a relatively new practice that has evolved in the western world only within the last 100 years. Recently, there have been efforts by various medical and professional organizations to discourage parents from sleeping with their children for fear that it contributes to an increase in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). However, new research demonstrates that co-sleeping, when practiced by informed parents, can be safe and beneficial. In fact, many cultures where parents routinely sleep with their children report some of the lowest SIDS rates. In some of these cultures SIDS is non-existent…

What is Co-Sleeping?

Many terms related to infant sleep are used interchangeably, which can create confusion. API uses the following definitions:

  • Co-sleeping refers to sleeping in “close proximity,” which means the child is on a separate sleep surface in the same room as the parents. This includes the use of a cosleeping bassinet or “sidecar,” which is a crib-like bed with only three walls, with the fourth side remaining open and pushed up against the parents’ bed. For the older child, this can include sleeping in a separate bed in the same room as the parents, or two or more older siblings sleeping together in a separate room.
  • Bed-sharing, also called the “family bed,” describes a sleep arrangement where the family members sleep on the same sleep surface. This practice is recommended for only for breastfeeding families using API’s Safe Sleep Guidelines.

Despite all of the positive benefits of co-sleeping, the media loves to misrepresent it when something goes wrong.  Co-sleeping is blamed for infant deaths that are really caused by inappropriate bedding or second hand smoke.  Such deaths associated with soft bedding also occurs in cribs.

Tragically, five infants have died in Milwaukee in the last three months “as a result of suffocation associated with bed-sharing”.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

In 2007, the Big Cities Health Survey ranked Milwaukee seventh worst out of 53 cities for infant deaths. Between 2001 and 2008, 183 infants died in Milwaukee due to sudden infant death syndrome or unsafe sleep practices, according to the Milwaukee Health Department. Sixty-eight percent of these babies were bed-sharing when they died.

Additionally, in over half of these cases other major risk factors, such as smoke exposure or sleeping on soft surfaces, were present at the death scene.

Despite high-profile media cases involving alcohol and drug use, substance abuse was only found to be a factor in 19% of these deaths…

The possibility of an infant dying certainly outweighs the proposed benefits of coordination of sleep rhythms, ease of breastfeeding or maternal-child bonding during sleep.

I believe this article improperly alarms parents into thinking co-sleeping is not safe.  Although the article was written by doctors, there are other doctors who believe proper co-sleeping actually prevents SIDs.


I believe that in most cases SIDS is a sleep disorder, primarily a disorder of arousal and breathing control during sleep. All the elements of natural mothering, especially breastfeeding and sharing sleep, benefit the infant’s breathing control and increase the mutual awareness between mother and infant so that their arousability is increased and the risk of SIDS decreased.

It’s tragic when any baby dies, especially if the death was preventable.  Including statistics on SIDS and co-sleeping in the same article meant to scare parents is irresponsible and not based on sound research.  As Dr. Sears explains:

There has been a lot of media claiming that sleeping with your baby in an adult bed is unsafe and can result in accidental smothering of an infant. One popular research study came out in 1999 from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that showed 515 cases of accidental infant deaths occurred in an adult bed over an 8-year period between 1990 and 1997. That’s about 65 deaths per year. These deaths were not classified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), where the cause of death is undetermined. There were actual causes that were verified upon review of the scene and autopsy. Such causes included accidental smothering by an adult, getting trapped between the mattress and headboard or other furniture, and suffocation on a soft waterbed mattress.

The conclusion that the researchers drew from this study was that sleeping with an infant in an adult bed is dangerous and should never be done. This sounds like a reasonable conclusion, until you consider the epidemic of SIDS as a whole. During the 8-year period of this study, about 34,000 total cases of SIDS occurred in the U.S. (around 4250 per year). If 65 cases of non-SIDS accidental death occurred each year in a bed, and about 4250 cases of actual SIDS occurred overall each year, then the number of accidental deaths in an adult bed is only 1.5% of the total cases of SIDS.

Perhaps Milwaukee needs to re-evaluate its statistics and accurately represent how many deaths occurred from safe co-sleeping and not include them as SIDS. I imagine the number would be zero.  In addition, cribs are recalled every few months for causing infant deaths, so are they really to be trusted more than the safe family bed?


  1. Driving without putting your baby in a safety seat is “safe” 99.99% of the time — if you define “safe” as nothing bad happening. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

    The FACT is that in co-sleeping sometimes the adult accidentally — in his/her sleep — does something that suffocates the baby, like moving a blanket or pillow.

    That risk is there. Any parent who co-sleeps should know that in most cases nothing bad will happen, but sometimes, it kills the baby.

    • bob didn’t you read the whole post? particularly the part where in the study quoted on 1.5% of the deaths were due to unsafe co-sleeping? yep, the risk (the tiny, tiny risk) is there, but statistically the risk of sids is massive when a baby is sleeping on its own! you can’t just ignore facts to suit your own beliefs

  2. Co-Sleeping is wonderful, and the writers here are absolutely correct. Making an infant sleep alone is a relatively new practice, and co-sleeping is a natural and healthy thing to do – as long as you are informed on how to go about it. Yes, the media does like to misrepresent and make examples of any tragedy that happens, but that does not mean that family beds or co-sleeping in general are unsafe.

  3. Putting babies in car seats is a relatively new practice. The vast majority of babies NOT riding in car seats suffer no harm. Therefore, people who urge use of car seats are just alarmist ninnies.

    • and this is sarcastic, unthought out nonsense. car seats are new, because CARS are new. car designers were not thinking about infant safety (or even adult safety) when they created their machines- they were pioneers, not health and safety advocates. also, cars are not natural transport for a human, whereas sleep is a natural practice for all humans, and all other mammals sleep safely with their young the vast majority of the time.

  4. Co-sleeping doesn´t always mean that the baby sleeps with you in bed as it is explained in the article. My son slept the first week next to me in bed. We did not use a pillow and made sure the blanket was under his arms so it could slide over his face. After the first week he moved into a co-sleeper bed next to my bed. This discussion should not be about what is wrong or not. Parents should be allowed to do whatever feels right for them and their baby. Why isn´t the focus on explaining to parents what to look for if you want to share your bed with your baby to make sure everything will be fine. Some mothers don´t want their newborn in bed with them which is ok as well and then you have to make sure you place your baby in a safe crib and on her/his back. Just accept each others opinion and teach parents about possible risks of either ways. It should be that easy.

  5. Ooopsie…I meant to write “the blanket could NOT slide over his face” :)

  6. I agree with “Bob”. I can’t understand how we Americans can accept some technological advancements as good and others as bad. We generally accept that riding in a car seat is much safer for an infant despite the fact that few of us adults rode in car seats and yet, we’re alive.

    The adult bed in the United States is not a safe structure for an infant. The mattress that we use is generally much softer than an infant mattress. It also can have pillows, sheets, blankets, duvets, pillow toppers and all sorts of other soft bedding. Some use mattresses that are air filled and some use mattresses made of memory foam – all deadly to an infant.

    Is it possible to make the adult bed less dangerous? Absolutely. Some parents, especially those committed to the theory of attachment parenting give great thought and planning to the family bed. These parents are making an informed choice to raise there children in a certain way.

    However, that’s not the norm for the majority of new parents. The majority of new parents start out with all good intentions of placing their infants in cribs to sleep and then in a moment of exhaustion, they fall into bed with their infant. This is considered “chaotic bedsharing”. It rarely includes alcohol or drugs. It’s mostly exhaustion that brings on poor choices.

    I work with many of the parents who have experienced the unexpected death of an infant. It’s horrible. It only takes a moment to suffocate a baby. It takes a lifetime to mourn that same baby.

    As a parent, you get to decide. It’s your choice. No different that putting your child in a car seat – or not. No different that requiring your child to wear a bike helmet – or not.

    • i agree with everything you’ve said, although i myself bedshare with my baby, husband and toddler. you’ve explained the whole case- that it is personal choice, and that modern bedding is not necessarily good for the practice of bedsharing- so it needs to be part of the education of new parents that “if you want to put your baby in a cot, this is how you can minimise risks of SIDS; if you want to sleep with your baby, this is how you minimise the risk of smothering.” smothering and SIDS are two completely different things, and their are risks and benefits to both sleeping practices. the fact is, around 60% of parents will share a bed with their baby at some point- so help them make it safe.

  7. I believe really passionately after 4 children of my own and watching countless other adults parent in different ways, that co-sleeping is inherently expected, needed and loved by both the baby and the mother (in the peace of mind she aquires and of course the restful sleep). I sleep well and so does the baby from birth. If there’s a moment in the night when the baby stirs or misses a breath I’m suddenly awake and there for them. The days that follow are more relaxed as both myself and the baby are well rested. Most importantly the beautiful bond we share having enjoyed the intimacy of co-sleeping is amazing.

  8. Make sure that your child knows that it is time to sleep. Toddlers and babies can develop an instinct to sleep if you start putting them on bed at a fixed time and then turn on the lights.

    • do you have any actual evidence to back up that claim? because that sounds very much like trendy sleep training to me.


  1. […] Many opponents of the family bed and co-sleeping claim it is unsafe. It is true that injuries and tragic deaths have occurred when babies are placed in adult beds, but most of the time this is the fault of parents who do not remove bedding or practice safe co-sleeping practices. […]

  2. […] of SIDS from sharing a bed with your baby as reason why baby should sleep alone in a crib.  The media jumps on tragic stories of death from improper bed sharing as further evidence of the dangers of […]

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