Bed-sharing, Co-sleeping, or Separate Sleeping?

Recently, there has become a clear distinction between co-sleeping and what experts now refer to as bed-sharing. In order to decide what is best for your family, it is important to know the difference.

According to Attachment Parenting International (API), the definitions are as follows:

“Co-sleeping refers to sleeping in ‘close proximity,’ which means the child is on a separate sleep surface in the same room as the parents.” “Bed-sharing, also called the ‘family bed,’ describes a sleep arrangement where the family members sleep on the same surface.”

While new parents may feel pressured to have their baby “sleep through the night,” this scenario describes a myth. Frequent waking occurs for myriad reasons, and throughout most of the phases of a baby’s growth and development into childhood. Most parents find it less disruptive to sleep in close proximity to the baby, to accommodate for nighttime feeding and other needs with minimal interruption. In fact, babies often settle back into a deep sleep very easily with a quick feeding and comforting snuggle from a parent. Some parents are encouraged to let the baby “cry it out,” believing that this will teach the baby to self-soothe and eventually train him to sleep on his own. A recent article published on API’s website states that “New research suggests that these techniques can have detrimental physiological effects on the baby by increasing the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, with potential long term effects to emotional regulation, sleep patterns and behavior.”

Indeed, proponents of attachment parenting agree that sleeping with a child close is preferable to separating for the night. But bed-sharing has recently come under attack as numerous “studies” have claimed to show a link between bed-sharing and infant death. A closer look at the studies conducted, and the groups sponsoring them, reveals a more complicated picture.

According to Dr. Sears, one campaign to encourage crib sleeping is sponsored by the Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association (JPMA); an association of crib manufacturers. This obviously reflects a conflict of interest that cannot be overlooked. In fact, Sears, a widely respected doctor, child-rearing guru, and father, reports that approximately 2,600 cases of SIDS occurred each year in 1999, 2000, and 2001. An additional 180 cases of non-SIDS related infant deaths occurred in an adult bed during those same three years (possibly attributable to suffocation, smothering, and entrapment in furniture or bedding; and a figure meant to discourage bed-sharing). Thus, the number of accidental deaths in an adult bed was only 1.5% of the total cases of SIDS; certainly a figure not significant enough to demand the avid anti-bed-sharing campaign launched by the JPMA and others., indicates that this JPMA study was indeed suspiciously incomplete, and other studies have illustrated a reduction in SIDS among babies co-sleeping with parents.

The crib industry (JPMA) provided a large forum for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to announce this report. Unfortunately, no comparative statistics are provided in their announcements, and even the statistics they report are admittedly anecdotal and irregular. While the report supposedly left out the adult bed deaths that were diagnosed as SIDS (versus accidents), the determination between suffocation and SIDS is often a judgment call. Suffocation in a crib is more often reported as SIDS, while suffocation in an adult bed is reported as “death by adult bed.”

The actual SIDS statistics were not measured. Why? Several well-designed research studies demonstrate that SIDS is actually reduced in babies co-sleeping along with an aware, protective (non-smoking, non-drug-impaired) mother in a safe bed. Such an announcement would not sell cribs.

The numbers in the largest study on co-sleeping around the world suggest that safe co-sleeping reduces SIDS! See graph at bottom. International Child Care Practices Study

Another large study on SIDS shows 1/5th the risk of death for sleeping infants simply sharing the room with non-smoking adults. This includes many sleep variations. The rate for sharing bed was not measured directly. New Zealand Cot Death Study.

Practicing safe bed-sharing, however, means abiding by certain guidelines:

Avoid excessive alcohol intake or drug use while bed-sharing. Since mothers are usually more in tune with the baby and less likely to roll onto him, the baby should sleep next to his mother rather than between parents. Put the baby to sleep on his back. Keep the baby away from the edge of the bed.

When reasonable precautions are taken, bed-sharing is a safe, nurturing, and widely-practiced sleeping choice. A nearby parent is far more likely to be alerted to any changes in the baby’s sleep; including choking, gasping, coughing, and crying, than a parent in another room. In fact, according to a comprehensive article published in Mothering Magazine in 2002, in which worldwide studies and results were considered; “Research shows that infants who sleep in a crib are twice as likely to suffer a sleep related fatality (including SIDS) than infants who sleep in bed with their parents. “ (Dr. Sears)

Consider the following facts when choosing a sleep method for your family:

  • 95 % of the world sleeps with their baby. In countries where co-sleeping is nearly universal, such as Hong Kong and Japan, SIDS rates are among the lowest on record.
  • Co-sleeping babies cry less and sleep more.
  • Infants who sleep with their parents under reasonable, safe conditions; either bed-sharing or co-sleeping; have higher survival rates. (Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to CoSleeping; James J. McKenna; 2007)
  • Both babies and mothers sleep better when bed-sharing, as they synchronize their sleep and wake patterns and drift between cycles with minimal interruption. (Dr. Sears,
  • Bed-sharing encourages and facilitates breastfeeding, which is proven to be best for baby’s health.

Bed-sharing and co-sleeping are natural, healthy, and safe choices for parents and their baby. Sleeping in close proximity to the baby is a natural way to promote nurturing and bonding, ensure quality sleep, and build a solid foundation of trust and confidence between parents and their baby. When done properly, bed-sharing is safer than leaving the baby alone, and encourages healthy breastfeeding, breathing, and sleep patterns for babies.

No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night
by Elizabeth Pantley


Hannah Sullivan was a contributor and co-editor for ERGOparent. She is a devoted mother of three, an avid enthusiast of babywearing, running, and vegetarian cooking. She is a working mom and lives on Maui with her husband and her children; ages 8, 5, and 2. Hannah looks forward to sharing her insights with other busy Moms.