Bedsharing—research and reality

There’s another tragedy attributed to bedsharing in the news: A four-month-old little boy died while sharing a bed with his parents, who were drunk and stoned. If you pay attention to these types of news stories, you’ll notice that almost every situation involves alcohol, drugs, or a non-parental caregiver, and sometimes all of the above. But, curiously, the most recent article on bedsharing in the journal Pediatrics does not even mention the word “intoxicated” or any variation thereof. It doesn’t mention “alcohol” or “drugs,” either. In fact, a lot of the research on this topic doesn’t explore these factors at all; the research, which is what drives recommendations, is not looking at the right variables. How can parents make informed decisions for their families if they’re not given the best information possible? (The answer, if you’re cynical, is that no one wants you to make your own decisions.)

Diana West, IBCLC wrote about bedsharing for Huffington Post recently, making this important point:

What many breastfeeding mothers (and doctors!) don’t realize is that while the Never Bedshare warnings are a one-size-fits-all message, not all babies are at equal risk.

Some babies deserve more caution than others. Premature infants and those with health conditions, for example, may not be good candidates for bedsharing (although, for some of them, it can be hugely beneficial). And the wide variation between people (such as body size or how deeply you sleep) and their environments (such as exposure to cigarette smoke or a fluffy bed that can’t be replaced) may contribute to whether or not bedsharing may be safe.

What is safe bedsharing? I’ll point you to the foremost expert in the field, Dr. James McKenna of the University of Notre Dame Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory. He covers the entire range of guidelines. I cannot emphasize two things enough: Bedsharing under the influence of drugs or alcohol (even legal drugs such as painkillers) is not safe, and “bedsharing” in a location such as a sofa or chair is not safe, either. (It is very, very common for parents to assume that a baby sleeping in-arms or with a parent on a non-bed surface doesn’t count as “bedsharing,” and is therefore not on the list of forbidden parenting acts.)

The reality of bedsharing is this: Almost every parent does it at some point, whether it’s planned or not. And unplanned bedsharing, or planned bedsharing under unsafe circumstances, is what is dangerous. Do yourself and your baby a favor: Learn and follow the ways to bedshare safely. Consider your risk factors and weigh them against the benefits. Make an informed decision, trust your instincts, be mindful of your biology and comfort level, and do what works best for your family.