Rolling Onto Baby While Co-Sleeping – Should You Worry?

You’re exhausted and you have a brand-new cuddly baby who is regularly waking to feed.

Chances are you’re thinking about bed-sharing.

Then you remember your cousin, Sally, and her fearful warning, or perhaps that Public Service Announcement in a magazine.

You may be worried about rolling onto your baby and wondering if co-sleeping is a safe choice.

Is Rolling Onto Baby While Co-Sleeping A Real Safety Concern For Me and My Baby?

All of our parental decisions have potential risks. They also have potential benefits. There is no 100% risk-free infant sleep zone, just like there is no 100% risk-free way to travel. We take precautions and we do what provides us with the best benefit vs risk ratio. We also use a lot of common sense along the way!

First, how do we sleep safely with an infant? According to Professor James McKenna, these are safe bed-sharing guidelines:

  • Both parents should be aware of baby and in agreement with baby being in the bed
  • Do not bed-share while under the influence of drugs, alcohol, sedatives or medications. If you are excessively unable to arouse baby should sleep on another surface
  • Mothers with very long hair should keep it tied back
  • Infants under one year should not bed-share with other children
  • Extremely obese parents that might be unable to feel baby’s proximity, should co-sleep with baby on a separate surface rather than bed-share
  • Babies should be put to sleep on their backs on a firm surface, with light blanketing, no fluffy items and in the absence of smoke.
  • Parents should never sleep on a couch with an infant
  • Shared adult beds should be free of entanglement and entrapment risks. Remember that adult bed frames were not designed with infant safety in mind
  • If an infant is not breastfeeding parents should co-sleep with the infant on a separate sleep surface
  • Attention should be paid to baby’s temperature. When close to parents a baby has a higher body temperature than when it sleeps alone. Do not over bundle baby or use heavy blankets
  • Babies should never sleep on top of or near pillows
  • Mothers who smoke or smoked during pregnancy should not share a sleep surface with baby as smoking increases the risk of SIDS

You may be thinking: “Okay, we see there are guidelines for safe bed-sharing, but how does that answer the concerns? Even with the above, how do you know you will not roll onto your baby?”

Consider this, when was the last time you fell off of your bed? It’s likely not happened since childhood. Your body knows what’s around it, and it knows if it rolls too far, you will fall. In that same manner, your body can know baby is nearby.

Mothers and infants are designed to be close. This includes closeness at night. We know that nighttime breastfeeding is an important part of the breastfeeding relationship. It makes sense that mothers and infants are designed for nocturnal closeness.

One would think if mother baby pairs are designed to be close, then they would also be designed to do so safely. Fortunately we don’t just have to assume this, research backs this up. Developmental and anthropological studies suggest that mother baby pairs respond to each other’s presence through all stages of sleep.

Professor James McKenna’s Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory of The University of Notre Dame has found:

  • No record of healthy breastfeeding mothers unable to sense the proximity of their babies in order to avoid smothering them
  • Breastfeeding mother baby pairs (2-4 months of age) are very sensitive to the movement of each other throughout the night
  • Healthy 2-4 month old babies are able to respond to instances with the potential to block their air passages by effectively alerting their mothers
  • Healthy 2-4 month old babies are able to maneuver out of danger under normal circumstances

If there is evidence of bed-sharing being safe, where does the concern come from? Why do some healthcare providers or agencies advise against it?

  • Though mother baby pairs are designed to be close, not all modern sleep surfaces are safe for infants
  • Some social and living situations can increase risks
  • Some physical and medical conditions can increase risk
  • Statistics on infant death while sharing a sleep surface do not always decipher between planned bed-sharing of a healthy breastfeeding pair and accidental napping on the couch with baby (which is very dangerous)
  • It’s easier to say no bed-sharing than to educate about when and how it can be done safely given the many possible variables in each family and home

Professor James McKenna believes no healthcare provider should tell families how they need to sleep. Rather, they should be given accurate information to make the decisions that are right for them. Only a family knows exactly what is going on in their home and the options in their home for safe infant sleep surfaces.

If you are a breastfeeding mother of a healthy infant, following safe bed-sharing guidelines, the risk of rolling onto your baby is very low. For many families, bed-sharing remains a popular and safe choice. One that facilitates a healthy breastfeeding relationship and more sleep.

Recommended Reading

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

Do you worry about rolling onto baby while sleeping? How do you sleep with your baby? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.



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Comments 8

  1. Alicia says:

    I try to put my baby in her own sleeping space and she wakes up right away. As soon as I lay down she is awake. During the day it isnt such a huge problem. She sleeps in the bed I have in the livingroom while I get what I need to done. At night, as soon as I move her to the bedroom and lay down she wakes up and I spend 1 to 2 hours after that getting her to sleep again. Then she wakes up the next time and I wind up falling asleep with her. Never have rolled on top of her and I formula feed. Seems that I and my husband both know she is there and dont budge. If he or I know she is there neither of us move. I would rather her be in her own bed because it is really hard to break the habit. My 2 year old still likes to climb in bed with us at night. I am still trying to get him to sleep on his bed and it is not easy. So how do I make the transition with them both?

  2. Skye says:

    Thanks so much for this article! Also thanks for such informative comments. I am pregnant right now and I intend to practice co-sleeping. I was wondering what you can do to avoid nappies soaking through to the sheet and mattress if the baby wees during the night?

  3. Cora says:

    Oh- and at first I always had my hand on her- making sure I could feel her breathing, and then she knew I was right there. I don’t feel the need to do this anymore and she seems to be fine now after a few weeks – knowing I’ll be there. On many of the mornings because of how she’s surrounded I can sneak out of bed- and do a few things (like eat/ go to the bathroom /feed my animals) before she wakes up. I keep the baby monitor on so I can hear her waking noises.

  4. Suzie says:

    M y baby is 4 weeks old and will not sleep anywhere but in my arms. I’m a non smoking/drinking/medication taking healthy breast feeding mother of a healthy baby but I’m scared The only form of co sleeping she’ll do isn’t safe. As she will only sleep on me we sleep skin to skin (she wears a nappy only) with no duvet near us (it’s hot at night at moment) and I sleep with pillows either side of me so I can’t roll. I haven’t rolled or moved once with her on
    My chest. She sleeps at most two hours then we have a feed and re establish our position carefully with my husband’s help (he is separated from us by pillows too) and we fall instantly back to sleep. Is this safe? We have a snuzpod bedside bed but she won’t go in it because as I say she’ll only sleep on me. If it’s not safe, has anyone any tips for how to encourage her to sleep in snuzpod/next to me?

    • Cora says:

      I swaddle my 8 week old baby in a light muslin swaddle and place my baby in between 2 rolled up towels ( hair bands on each end so they don’t unroll ) so she can’t roll around or roll on her face (Rolling onto her back isn’t a problem) the towel at her front side is placed lower at her chest then down the length of her body) I sleep with her at breast level, and her and I both on our sides- tummy to tummy. ( if she rolls forward it’s into me and I’d feel it. She hates sleeping on her back and hasn’t since day one. I think the towels surrounding her keep her feeling safe and secure as well. I swap sides to nurse at night by gentle lifting her onto my belly, turning to the other side, setting her down and then adjusting the towels again to that side. My husband is also in bed with us- and usually keeps to his side pretty good. We don’t drink /smoke/drug whatsoever. It’s kept our sanity as she won’t sleep without being held, this was our solution. We are in a queen bed and it’s tight. Probably going to invest in a king fairly soon… lol

  5. Caro J says:

    I often sleep with my 6week old baby from about 2 or 3am, which means the next feed we can snuggle in the early morning and “sleep in” (til 7am- gotta readjust the goalposts here!). On my own I am restless and turnover a bit. With my baby I tend to just stay in the one position with my arm around her and barely move to the point I can be a bit stiff when I wake up. I think I’m just so conscious of this babe. I have Co-sleeped on and off with my other two older children when they were babes and never rolled on them. If I had I’m sure we would have both woken up quite quickly!!! So this fear of smothering them seems so improbable unless your way oversedated like being drugged and your usual senses are shut down. I loved sharing a bed with my babies but also love the freedom and space to sleep alone so I mixed it up depending on how my babies were going and me – and I am doing the same with this third one.

  6. ksren says:

    I’m a breastfeeding Mum n I put my baby in bed with me to feed n I’m also on medication which makes me drowsy but 5 months into breastfeeding I have never rolled over onto my baby I can sense where she is at all times my Moto is be careful n use common sense at all times we’ve been educated about the rights n wrongs in life it’s down to each individual to choose what they think I best

  7. Mary Jo Terrill, BSN, MSW says:

    Excellent article! Maria covered all the important points. So many articles do not point out that the healthy breastfeeding mom and babe have been safe since the beginning of time.
    A mother has a “sixth sense”…an awareness of where her baby is in the bed even when she is sleeping. Another adult or child would not have this sense and so would not be safe in the same bed with the baby. The father is usually safe as long as he is not taking any sleep medication, drugs, or alcohol that could impair his ability to arouse easily. And as long as mom is in the bed as well. Caution needs to be taken so that baby does not roll off the bed or get caught between a mattress or pillow and a bedframe or other furniture placed next to bed for safety. No matter what you choose to do, there will always be safety precautions needed.