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Bed Sharing Safely: Not All Co-Sleeping is Created Equal

PHOTO: A national expert says it is time to shift the messaging to safety when it comes to bed-sharing, because mothers are biologically inclined to co-sleep with their babies and some forms are much safer than others. CREDIT: Sonya Green
PHOTO: A national expert says it is time to shift the messaging to safety when it comes to bed-sharing, because mothers are biologically inclined to co-sleep with their babies and some forms are much safer than others. CREDIT: Sonya Green
May 15, 2013

PHOENIX - When it comes to the potential risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome from a mother sharing her bed with her baby, there is a push to change the message from "just don't do it" to "here is how it's done most safely."

The shift is needed because co-sleeping will never be eliminated and not all forms are equal, said Dr. James McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame. For example, McKenna said, associated risks are nearly eliminated by breastfeeding.

"You get babies sleeping in lighter sleep and you get mothers who are breastfeeding sleeping in lighter sleep," he said. "That's a very significant difference as regards each being able to track and monitor and respond to the presence and physical activities of the other."

Another method McKenna deemed safe is what he calls separate-surface co-sleeping, where the baby is not in the bed with the parents but close by in the same room.

"Any time you can find a situation with a committed caregiver sleeping within sensory proximity of the baby, in a situation where each can detect and exchange sensory cues of the other, wherever you get that situation, you have a very protected environment," he said.

At the same time, McKenna noted, there are situations where co-sleeping never is appropriate, such as on a sofa, recliner or waterbed. The other major risks include bed-sharing while using alcohol and drugs, along with maternal smoking.

"The mother having smoked during her pregnancy ... damages the tissues of the baby's arousal mechanism," he said. "We know that any kinds of desensitizing drugs or alcohol or sedatives obviously blunt mother's 'responsivity' to her baby."

The rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has dropped by about 50 percent in the past two decades, but still is the leading cause of death for those younger than a year old.

More information is online at cosleeping.nd.edu.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ