Is sleeping with my baby safe?
Can it reduce the risk of SIDS?
Infants and parents sleeping together or in proximity to one another is how the human
infant's nutritional, transportational, social-emotional, and thermal needs continue to be
met worldwide. This includes Japan, where the rates of SIDS are the lowest in the world.
In most cultures, parent-infant contact is thought to be as important during the night as
it is during the day. In contrast, the industrial western world's accepted model of
"normal" and "healthy" infant sleep assumes that it is best for the
infant to sleep in isolation with minimal parental intervention. But, infants were
designed to sleep next to their mothers for night time breastfeeding, so solitary infant
sleep represents a novel, if not alien experience, for which not all infants, we contend,
are equally prepared. Our work challenges western assumptions on "normal" infant
sleep in hopes of uncovering hidden environmental co- factors heretofore not considered to
be relevant to some types of SIDS.
We do not suggest that sleeping with an infant can prevent SIDS or that it is perfectly
safe. Indeed, where there are a variety of factors such as drug use in the family,
maternal smoking, and a lack of knowledge about infant safety, co- sleeping might increase
rather than decrease dangers to the infant. However, the circumstances mentioned above
should not be confused with all co- sleeping situations. The sensory exchange that
co-sleeping provides an infant, i.e., heat, sound, smell, touches, and movement, are
sensory stimuli that the infant is designed to respond to in a positive way. Co- sleeping
requires that specific precautions be taken to assure infant safety; this should not be
mistaken for an argument against the potential benefits to infants, any more than a
concern for crib design safety is an argument against an infant sleeping alone.
With the generous support of the National Institutes of Child and Human Development,
Drs. Sarah Mosko, Christopher Richards and myself are presently exploring the effects of
mother-infant pairs sleeping apart and together over successive nights in a sleep
laboratory. Our studies show that while co-sleeping, infants breastfeed more frequently
and for longer total duration; they have more arousals many of which are induced by the
mother's movements or sounds, and that the infants spend less time in the deep stage of
sleep from which some infants have difficulty arousing (apnea). We have been impressed
with both the mother's and infant's acute responsiveness to the other's activities, all of
which seem to change the infant's physiology in ways that look potentially helpful in
resisting a SIDS eventl, although we cannot prove this at this time.
In answer to the question, is it safe to sleep with your baby? Under most circumstances
co-sleeping is likely to be very safe and beneficial; but it depends on how it is done. If
the parent(s) smoke or take drugs, co-sleeping is risky. Sleeping with an infant on a
waterbed, couch, soft bed, or any bed that has gaps or ledges into which the infant can
fall, can be risky for the infant. It is more ideal to sleep on a hard firm mattress, and
to limit your use of pillows and blankets.
In regards to the second question, we do not yet know if co-sleeping can reduce the
risk of SIDS. It is clear that our research is yielding important insights into the
limitations of defining the species-wide co-sleeping arrangement as "abnormal"
while labeling the culturally recent preference for solitary infant sleeping as
"normal" and always "healthy". We hope someday to be able to use our
data to contemplate new models of healthy infant sleep to serve as a scientific beginning
to help combat SIDS.
Article by: James McKenna, Ph.D., Professor of Biological Anthropology, Senior
Researcher SIDS Project, Sleep Disorders Center, University of California, Irvine School
Reprinted with permission from Horizons, Vol. 1, No. 4, Spring/Summer 1995, California