Every parent with a new baby has asked themselves the age-old question “When will we get more sleep???”

We all want to figure out what sleeping arrangement will give us the most shut-eye while maintaining our baby’s safety. If your baby only sleeps when cuddled up with you, it makes for a long night and some tough decisions.

To help you make the best choice for your family, we looked at the research and spoke with the experts. Here’s an overview of guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), along with the potential dangers, benefits, and how-to’s of co-sleeping with your baby.

Before we take a deep-dive into the benefits of different infant sleep arrangements, it’s important to point out the differences between co-sleeping — which generally refers to bed sharing — and room sharing.

According to a 2016 policy statement, the AAP recommends room sharing without bed sharing. In other words, the AAP doesn’t advise co-sleeping at all.

On the other hand, the AAP recommends room sharing because it’s been shown to decrease the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by up to 50 percent.

Safe room sharing guidelines

  • Babies should sleep on their back, in the parent’s room, close to the parent’s bed, but on a separate surface. This sleeping arrangement should ideally last for baby’s first year, but at least the first 6 months after birth.
  • A separate surface can include a crib, portable crib, play yard, or bassinet. This surface should be firm and not indent when the baby is lying down.
  • Babies who are brought into the caregiver’s bed for feeding or comfort should be returned to their own crib or bassinet for sleep.

Co-sleeping (aka bed sharing) is not endorsed by the AAP. This decision is based on research showing that bed sharing with babies results in a higher rate of SIDS.

The risk of SIDS is even higher if you smoke, drink alcohol before bedtime, or take medicines that make it harder to wake up. Co-sleeping with a premature or low-birth-weight baby, or any baby younger than 4 months, is also more risky.

Dr. Robert Hamilton, FAAP, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, says that the danger of SIDS is indeed small. Even still, pediatricians have adopted the recommendation that young babies should not sleep with you in your bed, in lounge chairs, or on couches.

“What we do recommend is having newborn children sleep in your bedroom. Place bassinets close to the bedside, especially for nursing infants and the ease of the mother,” says Hamilton.

However, not all experts agree that co-sleeping is a bad thing. James McKenna, PhD, is a professor at the University of Notre Dame. Though not a physician, he is highly regarded for his research on co-sleeping, breastfeeding, and SIDS. McKenna’s work has examined both bed sharing and room sharing.

McKenna points to research published in 2014 that concluded bed sharing to be safe in the absence of hazardous factors, when babies are older than 3 months. In that study, researchers unexpectedly found bed sharing may well be protective in older infants.

But it’s important for parents to remember the AAP maintains that bed sharing presents too high of a risk, regardless of the conditions. They did an independent review of the above mentioned study, along with 19 others, when writing the bed sharing section of the 2016 policy statement.

The independent reviewer stated: “Clearly, these data do not support a definitive conclusion that bed sharing in the youngest age group is safe, even under less hazardous circumstances.”

When children become toddlers, the potential for SIDS decreases greatly. This is good news since it’s also the time when kids love to climb into bed with their parents.

By the time your baby is more than 1 year old, Hamilton says the risks of bed sharing are very low, but it sets a precedent that can be hard to break.

“My advice to parents is always to begin the evening with children in their own bed. If they wake up in the middle of the night, it’s best to comfort them, but try to keep them in their own beds. It’s not so much a concern for their safety as concern for the quality [rest],” says Hamilton.

For those who bed-share for whatever reason, these are recommendations to try to make it less hazardous. Sharing a sleep surface with your baby still puts them at a higher risk of sleep-related infant death than having them sleep on a safe surface separate from you.

With that in mind, here are the guidelines for safer co-sleeping:

  • Don’t sleep on the same surface with your baby if you have taken drugs or sedatives, consumed alcohol, or if you’re overly tired
  • Don’t sleep on the same surface with your baby if you’re a current smoker. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infants exposed to secondhand smoke after birth are at a greater risk for SIDS.
  • Don’t sleep on the same surface if you smoked during pregnancy. A 2019 study found that the risk of SIDS more than doubled when mom smoked during pregnancy.
  • If sharing a sleeping surface, place baby next to you, rather than between you and your partner.
  • Babies less than a year old should not sleep with siblings or other children.
  • Don’t sleep on a couch or chair while holding your baby.
  • Always place baby on their back to sleep, especially when swaddled.
  • If you have very long hair, tie it up when baby is next to you so it doesn’t wrap aroundtheir neck.
  • A parent with obesity may have difficulty feeling how close their baby is in relation to their own body, and should always sleep on a different surface than the baby.
  • Make sure there are no pillows, loose sheets, or blankets that could cover your baby’s face, head, and neck.
  • If baby is in bed with you for a feed or for comfort, make sure there are no spaces between the bed and wall where baby could be trapped.

If, after reviewing the pros and cons, you decide not to co-sleep, you may still worry about falling asleep while feeding baby. Dr. Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center, says if you think you may fall asleep during the night feed that’s about to take place, then the feed should take place in the bed instead of the couch or armchair.

“If a parent falls asleep while feeding an infant, the AAP says it’s less hazardous to fall asleep in an adult bed that’s free of loose covers or sheets than on a couch or chair,” says Woods.

Falling asleep in a chair presents a higher risk of suffocation if baby gets stuck between mom and the arm of the chair. It’s also risky because of the risk of baby falling out of your arms to the floor.

If you fall asleep while feeding baby in bed, Woods says you should return your baby to their crib or separate space immediately after you wake up.

Room sharing, but not co-sleeping in the same bed, is the safest sleeping arrangement for all babies 0–12 months. Benefits of sharing a bed with your baby don’t outweigh the risks.

If you co-sleep with your baby on the same surface, intentionally or not, be sure to avoid hazardous conditions and follow the guidelines closely.

Sleep is precious for everyone in the first year of baby’s life. With thoughtful consideration and consultation with your doctor, you’ll find the best sleeping arrangement for your family and will be counting sheep in no time.