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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 20, 2013

DES MOINES, Iowa - When weighing the potential risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) from a mother sharing her bed with a 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, according to Dr. James J. McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, 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, and that's a very significant difference as regards each being able to track and monitor and respond to the presence and the physical activities of the other," the doctor said.

The rate of SIDS has dropped by about 50 percent over the past two decades, but it is still the leading cause of death for those ages one year and younger.

Another method that's safe is what Dr. Peter Hetherington, a Des Moines pediatrician, calls "separate surface" co-sleeping, where the baby is not in the bed with the parents, but close by in the same room.

"The safest place to sleep would be in the room that the parents sleep in, but not in their bed," he said. "You can always place the crib or bassinet close to the parents and that would make it easier to bond and breastfeed."

At the same time, McKenna noted that there are situations where co-sleeping is never appropriate, including 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, that damages the tissues of the baby's arousal mechanism," he said. "We know that any kinds of desensitizing drugs or alcohol or sedatives obviously blunts mother's 'responsivity' to her baby."

The rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has dropped by about 50 percent over the past two decades, but it is still the leading cause of death for those ages one year and younger.

More information is at bit.ly/ZNLglF.

Richard Alan, Public News Service - IA