Cosleeping with a baby is common in many
parts of the world. But it’s controversial in North America, where some
medical organizations warn that it can cause suffocation. Here is another
perspective from James J. McKenna, Ph.D., author of a book on the
subject called Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent's Guide to Cosleeping
(Platypus Media, LLC, 2007). Dr. McKenna directs the Mother-Baby Sleep
Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame. He has been studying cosleeping
for over 25 years.
Q: Does cosleeping benefit
A: Benefits are, of course,
always relevant to whom is cosleeping, what it means to them, and how they
practice it. Cosleeping makes babies happy. From a scientific point of view,
cosleeping babies cry less and sleep more. Babies lying next to their
mothers can breastfeed easily without having to cry in order to make their
needs known. Mothers get more sleep, too (though it is more light sleep.)
Here in North America, we are the most unsatisfied, unhappy and exhausted
parents in the world because we place babies at odds with their biology.
Q: Isn’t cosleeping
A: Sleeping alone is not
biologically correct. Human infants are born more neurologically immature
than any other species (excluding marsupials.) Our central nervous systems
depend on a microenvironment that is like the in-utero environment, full of
sensory stimulation. Babies need the warmth, stimulation and monitoring that
comes with sleeping next to a caregiver.
Almost all, fully 95 percent, of the world
sleeps with their baby, and there are only very few cultures in the world
for which babies sleeping alone is even thought to be acceptable or
desirable. In many Asian cultures where cosleeping is the norm, including
China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
is either unheard of or rare. In Hong Kong and Japan, which have almost
universal cosleeping, SIDS rates are among the lowest in the world. The vast
majority of scientific studies on infant behavior and development conducted
in diverse fields during the last 100 years suggests that the question
placed before us should not be “Is it safe to sleep with my baby?” but
rather, “Is it safe not to do so?” My book includes information on how to
bedshare safely and when it should be avoided, information parents need to
make sound choices.
Q: Why do parents always get
told that they should never sleep with their babies?
A: Parents are receiving
dangerous advice from medical authorities that mislead them into assuming
that all pediatricians and all SIDS researchers recommend against bedsharing.
This is just not true. The American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on SIDS
claims bedsharing is always hazardous. This is flat out wrong! Done
correctly, whether this means cosleeping, bedsharing or room sharing,
infants sleeping with their parents are more likely to survive! The U.S.
Consumer Products Safety Commission says never sleep with your baby; the
only safe place for an infant to sleep is in a crib that meets current
It is sad that a small group of
“experts” have the parents in western countries bamboozled into believing
that the entire history of civilization was wrong, that parents and babies
have been doing it all wrong since the dawn of humanity!
parents rely on doctors for infant sleep advice?
A: One of the most
important things I am hoping to do is remind parents that while professional
evaluation is important for sick children, issues of childcare, especially
regarding where babies sleep and the relationship this reflects, are
decisions best made by information-armed parents, not by external
authorities who neither know the parents, nor the infant, nor how sleeping
arrangements might work in any given family. At this point in time, medical
authorities seem overly willing to use selected and simplistic medical
findings to infer their own conclusions about where babies should sleep.
Many employ, in my mind inappropriately, a one-size-must-fit-all strategy
for sleeping arrangements. Indeed, cosleeping is being misrepresented –
often by people who think they know something about it but choose to dismiss
any scientific evidence that disagrees with their own negative position.
Many of these authorities only know about catastrophic failures associated
with dangerous forms of cosleeping and use these failures to draw simplistic
conclusions about a very complex practice.
Q: Won’t my child be
emotionally dependent if we cosleep?
A: Absolutely not!
Independence and autonomy have nothing to do with forcing babies to learn
how to sleep by themselves. Parents are often under the mistaken impression
that if they don’t train their babies to sleep alone every night, somehow
some developmental or social skill later in life will be kept from them, or
that their babies will never exhibit good sleep patterns later in life. Yet
research has consistently shown us that children who routinely sleep with
their parents or are not “sleep-trained,” actually become more independent
socially and psychologically, are able to be alone better by themselves, and
have greater abilities to interrelate and be empathetic.
Q: Do you believe that
all parents should cosleep with their babies?
A: No, I believe parents
should do what they feel is best for their families. I think it is important
to empower parents and let them know that every child born in the world is
unique as is each family. Since no child is the same, no solution to what
children need is necessarily the same. Parents know their own babies better
than anyone. Pediatricians are not trained in human development, childcare
strategies or psychology. They know how to fix sick babies. We have to be
very careful to not medicalize behaviors that are not appropriately
medicalized: where babies sleep, what is a proper sleeping arrangement and
how parents decide to respond to their baby’s nutritional needs. I do
believe that parents should be well-informed so that they are able to make
the best decisions for their families, and so that if they do choose to do
something like share a bed with their baby, they can do it as safely as
Read more about the
biological cause of SIDS.