Sleeping With Baby – Is Co-Sleeping Safe?

Sleeping With Baby - Is Co-Sleeping Safe?

First of all, the question must be first responded to by asking… what kind of co-sleeping are you referring to?

It’s scientifically fallacious to say that co-sleeping increases the chances of SIDS, especially in light of the fact that hundreds of different co-sleeping patterns exist, which vary in degrees of safety and/or benefits and outcomes associated with them.

Room-sharing is a form of co-sleeping, and it’s known that room-sharing decreases an infants chances of dying by up to 50% compared with babies sleeping alone.

But perhaps more importantly, no human infant (meaning no present living human beings) would or could be alive today had our ancestral mothers not have slept next to their infants for physiological regulation, management, protection, and to breastfeed throughout the night.

It’s one thing to delineate which kinds of “co-sleeping” in diverse settings are safer or less safe or not safe at all, therein acknowledging the diverse types of co-sleeping and the need to educate parents to the known factors which increase suffocation risks or some types of SIDS.

For example, evoked by overheating, the covering of an infant’s head, sleeping on a couch with an infant or allowing other children to sleep next to a baby. But it’s an altogether different and immoral strategy to claim in an unqualified way that mothers bodies, no matter what, cannot safely sleep next to their infants, or that these bodies are inherent lethal weapons, no matter what.

Most co-sleeping cultures either have never heard of SIDS or have the lowest infant mortality or SIDS rates in the world. These co-sleeping cultures are characterised by mothers who breastfeed and do not smoke, suggesting that it is not co-sleeping that is the problem at all, but how it is practiced.

Saying without qualification that “co-sleeping causes SIDS” is the equivalent of saying that the mothers body and capacities are inherently deficient, the very body against which everything an infant can or cannot do biologically, or needs to do, is explained including infant survival itself.

This strategy and comment presently being used by medical institutions not only gets the science wrong, but it ignores contrary evidence. It dismisses any critiques of that science that claims to show that all bed-sharing is dangerous, but they attempt to pass on to the public social judgments for science. They assume and present their statements as if they are backed up by systematic studies that prove that parents are not intelligent nor capable enough to take care of the sleep environment within which they “co-sleep”. In addition, they assume that during sleep, all parents become insensitive to their infants needs, and are incapable of responding to their infants needs or conditions. Yet scientific studies published in the best medical scientific journals contradict and refute their claims. A double standard in assessing the causes and solutions for solitary sleeping- crib sleeping, infant deaths, and any and all forms of co-sleeping infant deaths is typically practiced.

What Are The Best Ways To Avoid SIDS?

I have studied SIDS risk factors since my own son was born over thirty years ago. In my mind, the best ways to help prevent SIDS or accidental suffocation and to assure optimal infant and maternal health are:

1. Do not smoke during your pregnancy or after, or let people smoke in the presence of your baby after it is born. Safe infant sleep therefore begins when your baby is sleeping and developing in your womb, especially as regards how much damage maternal smoke can do to the fetal brain.

2. Always place your baby on his or her back for sleep.

3. Breastfeed your infant exclusively for at least six months, and for a year in general, if at all possible.

4. Dress your baby lightly for sleep (especially if you are sleeping with them in your bed). Make sure that regardless of where the baby is sleeping, that there is no “stuff” around him or her. For example, excessive blankets, heavy duvets or spreads, or stuffed animals.

5. If formula or bottle feeding (with no breastfeeding), sleep close to the baby at least in the same room, within sensory range, on a separate surface and not in the same bed.

6. If routinely bed-sharing, it would be best to pull the bed off its frame with the box spring and mattress on the floor in the center of the room. Bed frames can have gaps between the mattress and the frame (head board or foot board) into which an infant might slip and suffocate.

7. Lowering the height of the bed reduces the chances of a baby rolling off a bed and getting hurt. Although, breastfeeding babies barely if at all move around in beds as they are too interested in being next to their mothers breasts with all of those good smells being emitted.

8. Never let children sleep next to your baby; best not to have another child in the bed with baby at all.

9. Never push a mattress against a wall and assume it is safe there. Mattresses pushed against walls migrate quietly and without fanfare or notice by those in the room. Sometimes the mattress pulls away from the wall creating a gap or space just large enough to permit an infant to slip into it. It is not easy to remember to check each night to see if the mattress has slipped just enough away from a wall to pose a risk to an infant slipping between the wall and mattress and suffocating.

10. Likewise be careful with end tables, or lamp tables next to the adult bed. That space could pose a risk to the infant as well. Remove close tables that might create a gap into which an infant could roll and get stuck and suffocate.

11. Educate yourself (and your partner) to all the known adverse factors associated with using a crib safely and bed-sharing, and if you are unable to remove all adverse factors associated with bedsharing keep your infant close, but on a separate surface. Again, I call this “separate surface co-sleeping” and it works just fine and is better for families who do not breastfeed their infants, or if the mother smoked during her pregnancy, or if some other adult other than the father is in the bed, or if that adult sleep partner is indifferent to the presence of the infant, or if older children are likely to come into bed with the baby.

12. Of course drugs, alcohol, or de-sensitising medications should never be taken if sleeping in a bed next to an infant.

13. If you or your partner are excessively tired it is best to have infant sleep along side the bed but not in it.

Recommended Reading

Check out Professor McKenna’s book, Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping, which is one of our top 5 baby sleep books on BellyBelly.

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Professor James McKenna CONTRIBUTOR

Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Behavioral Studies of Mother-Infant Sleep, Notre Dame University.


  1. Can you please cite these studies that show co-sleeping in bed can be done safely? I co-teach a safe sleep class for parents, but now that I’m a new mom myself, I’m realizing how unnatural and unrealistic it is to tell parents to never never sleep with their babies. I think we are instilling guilt and fear rather than supporting their journey as new parents. Thanks for the info!

    1. Professor James McKenna is the world leading expert in co-sleeping, and has been involved with many studies in his mother baby labs. His website will provide you with loads of resources to use. All the best 🙂

  2. Why is it not recommended to be on same sleeping surface as baby if they are bottle fed? I combine feed my baby about 50/50 breast/formula , would this make co-sleeping unsafe?

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