Co-sleeping Benefits and Risks (Plus How to Safely Do it)


Co-sleeping is a topic that’s sparked considerable debate among parents, pediatricians, and researchers. Supporters emphasize its benefits, like better sleep for both parents and babies. However, concerns about SIDS risk and other safety issues have led others to warn against it.

In this post, we’ll look at the current safety guidelines and provide useful tips for parents considering co-sleeping. Plus I’ll share what I did with my own kids when they were babies!

What is Co-Sleeping?

Co-sleeping is when parents share a sleeping space with a baby or young child –usually up to the first year of life. Many parents decide to share a room for even longer. 

Some define co-sleeping as having the baby within arm’s reach, while others define it as parents and baby sleeping in the same room. When room-sharing, the baby may sleep next to the parent’s parents’ bed or in a bed or crib across the room. Room-sharing is fairly well-accepted — at least for the first six months of life.

However, bedsharing is more controversial. Bedsharing is just like it sounds — sleeping with the baby in the same bed. It’s more common than you might think. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out a survey of caregivers in 2015. 

Over half the caregivers surveyed (61%) reported bedsharing at least some of the time.

Benefits of Co-Sleeping 

Co-sleeping with a baby can have physical and emotional benefits for both parents and baby:

Increased Bonding 

Co-sleeping can enhance the bond between parents and baby. The closeness increases the opportunities for interaction, like nursing and comforting. Sleeping near parents at night can also provide a sense of security for the baby. This feeling of safety may lead to better emotional development and reduced separation anxiety.

Promotes Breastfeeding 

Co-sleeping makes nighttime breastfeeding more convenient. It can make mothers decide to breastfeed for longer (6+ months) because it’s easier to keep up with it night after night.

A 1997 study even found that bedsharing infants breastfed more often and for longer. They had more breastfeeding episodes and spent three times the amount of time during the night compared to separate sleepers.

Lowered Risk of SIDS

One side benefit is that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). A German study found that formula-fed babies not only had an increased risk of SIDS,  — they had DOUBLE the risk compared to breastfed babies. 

Sleeping near parents may also reduce the risk of SIDS. Sleeping in close proximity helps regulate the baby’s breathing and body temperature. Healthy breathing patterns can also reduce the risk of SIDS.

Benefits Bite Development

More convenient breastfeeding can have even farther-reaching benefits. A 2022 study found that co-sleeping as babies benefitted their bite development as toddlers. 

Children who practiced co-sleeping as babies were less likely to use a pacifier or suck their thumbs. As a result, they weren’t as likely to develop an overbite, crossbite, or open bite. They ended up having better facial development due to co-sleeping.

Better Sleep For Parents

Having the baby nearby can make nighttime caregiving tasks like feeding and comforting easier and quicker. As a result, parents may be more likely to get restful sleep.

Is Co-Sleeping Safe?

New parents may wonder whether bedsharing is safe. Bedsharing is actually the biological norm and has been common throughout history. Western societies have just moved away from it for the sake of convenience. It can be safe as long as parents follow certain practices.

One of those practices is breast-feeding. Breastfed babies have a symbiotic relationship with their mothers and can safely bedshare. However, formula-fed babies are safer in a side sleeper or in a crib next to the mother.

Dr. James McKenna is Director of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame and is widely considered a leading co-sleeping expert. He explains that there are several reasons why co-sleeping with breastfed infants versus bottle fed are not the same:

“Breastfeeding changes where and how the baby is placed next to the mother, to begin with, and the infant’s arousal patterns, how sensitive the baby and the mother are to each other’s movements and sounds and proximities, as well as the infant’s and the mother’s sleep architecture (how much time each spends in various sleep stages and how and when they move out of one sleep stage into another) are very different between bottle feeding and breastfeeding mother-infant pairs.”  

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) still advises against bedsharing In their 2022 updated guidelines. They warned that it increases the risk of SIDS. But SIDS is more of a concern when bed sharing with preterm and low birth weight infants. Healthy, full-term babies are not as much at risk as long as parents follow safe sleep practices.

Dr. McKenna has also gone over the research supposedly linking SIDS to co-sleeping. He says the interpretations of co-sleeping and SIDS study results have many inaccuracies and inconsistencies. 

There are always examples of people who don’t follow safe bedsharing practices. However, that doesn’t mean no one should do it. And it’s important to note that suffocation from unsafe co-sleeping is not SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), even though the two often get lumped together. 

Safe Co-Sleeping Practices

Here are some safe bedsharing practices. Keep in mind these apply to daytime naps as well as nighttime:

  • Breastfed babies may be safest sleeping next to their mothers (rather than fathers) 
  • Infants under a year shouldn’t sleep with older children
  • Babies need to be placed on a firm sleep surface (not a waterbed or couch)
  • Make sure the headboard and footboard don’t have openings where the baby could get trapped at night. The mattress should fit snugly against the headboard to ensure safe infant sleep.
  • Sheepskins are not a good idea; nor are weighted blankets, quilts, or pillows. They may increase the risk of overheating and suffocation. Stick with lightweight baby blankets.
  • A well-fitted baby sleeping bag can help give the baby separate bedding to avoid suffocation
  • Remove anything that could be a strangulation risk like jewelry, pacifier clips, and teething necklaces
  • Some parents opt to use a bedside bassinet, keeping the sleeping baby nearby while giving them their own space.

The Lullaby Trust out of the UK has also put together a guide on safe mattresses and bedding options for co-sleeping. They emphasize using a firm, flat mattress and avoiding soft or bulky bedding. 

What About Teaching Independence?

Some parents may worry that their child will never leave their bed. However, many of the ideas from baby sleep training apply here. A good way to start is by gradually transitioning your baby to their own sleep space. Start with a few minutes in their crib or bassinet. Then gradually increase the amount of time sleeping on their own. 

Be responsive to your baby’s needs during the transition time. Comfort them if they become upset, but encourage them to settle back to sleep in their own sleep space. A favorite blanket or stuffed animal can help with self-soothing and falling back asleep if they wake up during the night.

Another concern is that co-sleeping as babies would set up children to be less independent as they get older. The good news is that research has found it to be quite the opposite. Early co-sleepers were more self-reliant and more independent as preschoolers than children who didn’t co-sleep as babies.

Co-sleeping and bedsharing are common practices around the world. They aren’t new concepts. You might be surprised how many world leaders throughout history bedshared with their mothers as infants.

It Isn’t All or Nothing

It’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.” Once the baby is sleeping through the night, it may be time to gradually work toward moving the baby to his or her own room. Parents can use co-sleeping as a part of baby-led sleep training. 

There may also be times when it isn’t ideal for a baby to sleep in the adult bed. For example, if a parent has a respiratory illness or the flu, it’s probably best to let the infant sleep alone in a crib or bassinet. A night when one or both of the parents have had alcohol is another time to sleep separately.

Many parents simply don’t feel comfortable bedsharing. That’s completely okay! Parents who are heavy sleepers, on certain medications, dealing with an illness, etc., may not want a baby in bed with them. Whatever the case, there’s no judgment here. Room sharing is still an excellent option. 

What I Do/Did

When my children were babies, I bedshared with them for the first several months. I had gotten used to the baby being close by in utero, so it was a natural transition to have them sleep right next to me in bed. As the baby started moving around more, I also started to feel more comfortable having them sleep on their own.

Of course, sleeping arrangements will depend on each individual baby and family. Do what works best for you.

What do you think about co-sleeping? Did you practice bed-sharing or room-sharing with your little ones? Share with us below!



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By Mahir

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