Whether or not to co-sleep with your baby is one of the many choices you’ll make as parents. It’s a very personal decision. As with anything else in parenting (and in life), it has its pros and cons.

Here, we shed some light on what co-sleeping means, best practices, and why it’s something you may want to consider, or not.

What Is Co-Sleeping?

According to James McKenna, co-sleeping expert and director of the University of Notre Dame’s Mother and Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, co-sleeping is when an infant sleeps “within sensory range of a committed caregiver,” allowing both infant and caregiver “to detect and respond to the sensory signals and cues of the other.”

It’s a catchall term that can be broken down into two categories: bed sharing and room sharing.

  • Bed sharing is when your baby sleeps in your bed with you.
  • Room sharing is when your baby is in the same room, but sleeps on a separate surface, such as a bassinet or crib.

Whichever method you choose, the idea is to keep your baby within arms’ reach.

Is It Dangerous?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently advises against bed sharing, citing studies showing that it increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDs). There’s always the possibility that the baby could fall off the bed, be smothered by a sleeping parent, overheat, or suffocate. Formula-feeding, alcohol consumption, illegal or over-the-counter medications that cause drowsiness, and particularly smoking, can make bed sharing even riskier.

That said, lots of parents do end up sharing a bed with their baby, a fact medical authorities in Canada, Australia, and the UK take into account in their safe sleeping guidelines. These guidelines offer tips and best practices for making bed sharing as safe as possible, thereby reducing the risk of infant death.

Mothers who have been discouraged from bringing their baby into their bed often wind up doing night feedings on the couch, futon, or a recliner, dozing off in the process. Unfortunately, those are the most dangerous places to fall asleep with your baby, according to Melissa Bartick, M.D., M.Sc., an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. A 2014 study published in Pediatrics found that nearly 1 in 8 infant sleep-related deaths in the United States occurs on a sofa.

Room sharing, on the other hand, is highly encouraged. The AAP recommends that babies sleep in the same room (but not in the same bed) as their parents because it “facilitates feeding, comforting, and monitoring the infant.” Several studies have indicated that having your baby in the same room reduces the risk of SIDs by as much as 50 percent.

The Cons of Co-Sleeping

Co-sleeping is not for everyone, so it’s important to examine the potential disadvantages before jumping in with both feet. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

It Could Strain Your Relationship

If you opt to co-sleep, odds are that you and your partner will have a lot less time for intimacy. This could lead to resentment on one or both sides. Sex aside, you may be missing out on alone time with your partner, which you probably have very little of as it is, and that’s crucial for a healthy relationship.

You Might Not Sleep as Soundly

Infants can be surprisingly noisy and active in their sleep, jolting you from your dreams with every sigh, burp, or kick. Some parents become so hyper-aware of every whimper and coo that they’re able to manage only the lightest of sleeps. In a bed sharing situation, babies may take advantage of having Mommy so close by, and feed more often.

It May Be Harder to Transition Later

While some infants and children transition easily into their own room or bed, others don’t. Sometimes it’s the parents who have difficulty transitioning. The longer and more frequently you co-sleep, the more trouble you may have moving and adjusting to a new sleeping arrangement.

The Pros of Co-Sleeping

That said, there are some advantages for both baby and parent in a co-sleeping situation.

The Opportunity for More Sleep

You may actually find yourself getting more shut-eye in a co-sleeping situation. Having baby within arms’ reach means all you have to do is adjust your position on the bed or lean over to pull them out of their crib. No need to turn the lights on and haul yourself out of bed to stumble to the baby’s room.

Breast-Feeding Encouragement

Some studies have found that bed sharing may promote breast-feeding. “Women who don’t bed-share either end up giving up breast-feeding or [sharing a bed] anyway,” says Bartick. If you’re uncomfortable bed sharing, having your baby close by makes night feedings far more likely, not to mention convenient.

More Time to Bond with Baby

Babies find their mother’s scent very comforting. She is the first voice and face they recognize. Skin-on-skin contact, or kangaroo care, has been shown to have all kinds of physical and emotional well-being benefits for babies, especially preemies. Co-sleeping allows you even more time to nurture that bond. And there’s nothing quite like waking up to your baby’s smiling face.

Safe Co-Sleeping Practices

Whether you’ll be sharing a bed or a room, make sure to plan ahead. “One of the worst things you can do is [approach co-sleeping] unintentionally,” warns Bartick. Here are some guidelines for safer co-sleeping:

  1. Always lay your baby on their back on a firm, clean surface.
  2. Remove anything that could suffocate your baby, like pillows, heavy blankets, duvets, comforters, and plush toys.
  3. Your baby’s head should never be covered.
  4. Never put your baby to sleep on a beanbag mattress or a waterbed.

When sharing a bed: 

  1. Never leave your baby unattended on the bed.
  2. Let the baby sleep in the center of the bed, between you and your partner.
  3. Make sure anyone sharing the bed with your child has not been smoking and is not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  4. Never sleep in the same bed with a bottle-fed infant.
  5. Make sure all adults are aware that there is a baby in the bed.
  6. Tie back long hair, to prevent a strangling hazard.
  7. Do not allow siblings into bed if your baby is 12 months or younger.
  8. Move your bed away from walls.

Recommended Room Sharing Products

McKenna recommends the Arm’s Reach co-sleeper bedside bassinet. It can be attached to your bedside or used as a stand-alone bassinet. The Arm’s Reach line also gets a thumbs-up from Dr. Bill Sears.

The Baby Delight snuggle nest surround is a portable nest-like sleeper that got a glowing review from Pregnancy & Newborn Magazine. The ridge around the basket keeps your baby from rolling around the bed and you from rolling on the baby.

As parts and instructions can wear or go missing, it’s always best to buy these items new.

The Takeaway

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding co-sleeping and bed sharing, in particular as it has been found to increase the risk of SIDs. Keep in mind, however, that SIDs is always a risk, no matter what the sleeping situation. Make sure to follow all safety guidelines and take every possible precaution, whether you’ll be room sharing, bed sharing, or giving the baby a space of their own.

There are advantages and disadvantages to co-sleeping. Weigh these with your partner before making a decision and ensure that both of you are on the same page. Never wait until the last minute to decide what your plan of action will be.

In the end, the important thing is that you do what feels right for you and your family.