The Family Bed: The Risks and Rewards of Co-Sleeping

EDITOR'S NOTE: Make sure you know the Guidelines for Safe Sleeping, whether placing your child in his or her own bed, or in your adult bed with you.

By Cate Coulacos Prato

Family BEdFew parenting issues are as volatile as the family bed. In one camp are the parents and experts who believe co-sleeping – or sharing their bed with their children – is the best way to nurture and provide security for their kids. On the other side are those who contend that the safest and most developmentally appropriate place for children to sleep is in a crib apart from their parents.

Family bed proponents, led by pediatrician and child-development expert Dr. William Sears – the father of a child-rearing philosophy known as “attachment parenting” – are often nursing mothers who say that taking their infants into bed with them not only makes breastfeeding easier, it allows them to be more responsive to their baby’s needs in general.

Many mothers report that they get more rest and their babies sleep better in the family bed. The practice, which certainly encourages bonding and security, has been a cultural norm all over the world for centuries, and it’s still practiced widely outside of North America.

Yet many U.S. parents and pediatricians shun the family bed for several reasons – the top one being that they consider it unsafe: a parent could roll over onto the child, or the child may get caught up in the bedding and be smothered or strangulated.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in fact, cautions against co-sleeping for safety reasons. In the American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child’s Sleep: Birth Through Adolescence (Villard, 1999), the group warns that “tiny infants can be smothered under bedclothes or the weight of a much larger body.”

While acknowledging that co-sleeping is widespread in many cultures, the AAP notes that “what’s often overlooked is that in countries where co-sleeping is routinely practiced, families almost never sleep in beds with soft mattresses and bulky covers. A baby may be less likely to smother when the family sleeps on a floor mat with only a light coverlet.”

Many parents who opt not to have a family bed also want to maintain privacy or are unable to sleep well with the baby in bed with them. They also worry about fostering independence in their child, wondering how they would transition the child to his own bed when he gets older.

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