Dr. Sears and the Family Bed
Parents, babies, and young siblings sleeping together in the family bed is the way babies have slept throughout most of history — and still do in much of the world. In the United States today, it has been repopularized by Dr. William Sears as one of the tenets of a childrearing philosophy called “attachment parenting.” In his books, Nighttime Parenting and The Baby Book, Sears wrote that babies sleep differently than adults, with more waking periods and longer periods of light sleep, for a reason — they need to be able to wake easily when they are hungry, cold, or their breathing is compromised. He stresses that it's more important that a baby feels reassured and has a sense of intimacy than that he learns independent sleep habits.
The family bed has several benefits beyond the closeness and awareness it fosters between you and your baby. You may find it easier to get your baby to sleep, and your sleep cycles will become synchronized. When you do wake up, it will be out of a light sleep rather than a deep one, and soothing or feeding him will be that much easier.
Putting your baby in a crib has its own benefits. You may find that you sleep better with more room and without a squirming, kicking bundle beside you. If you can't sleep for fear of squashing the baby, or if you have a panic attack every time he makes a noise, you won't sleep at all or function well when you're supposed to be awake.
Sears suggests nursing or rocking the baby into a sound sleep before putting him down, either in a cradle or the parents' bed. You should get to the baby quickly whenever the baby wakes up, he says, since you'll probably have an easier time getting him back to sleep if he doesn't scream himself into hysteria first. Here's where having the baby in bed with you is an advantage — you can often soothe, or even breastfeed, your baby without fully coming awake yourself.
The family bed became controversial in 1999, when the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a warning against adults sleeping with babies in adult beds. This warning was based on information obtained when the Commission used death certificate data in a study that attempted to identify products associated with infant suffocation. The study was criticized for its methodology, most significantly for not taking into account other risk factors such as parents under the influence of drugs and alcohol; the number of babies sleeping on sofas or waterbeds; and the number of mothers who smoked during pregnancy or at the time of the baby's death. Despite the criticism, there has been no better study since.
Dr. Sears supports the CPSC's continuing research on the safety of the family bed and suggests using an Arm's Reach Co-Sleeper Bassinet as an alternative. This crib-like bed fits safely and snuggly adjacent to the parent's bed. The co-sleeper arrangement gives parents and baby their own separate sleeping spaces, yet keeps baby within arm's reach for easy nighttime care.
Alternatively, you may get many of the same benefits of a family bed by room sharing, or putting your baby's crib in your bedroom. One British study found room sharing lowered a baby's risk of SIDS.
If you decide to have a family bed, follow these steps to help ensure your baby's safety:
Keep the bed away from walls and other furniture (to eliminate the danger of the baby getting trapped on the side of the bed).
Move pillows away from your baby.
Don't use a waterbed.
Never sleep with your baby if you have taken any sedative, such as alcohol, over-the-counter cold medications, or narcotics. If the label says that you shouldn't be driving or handling heavy machinery when taking the drug, you shouldn't be sleeping with your baby either.
For comfort, get the biggest bed you can.
Don't sleep with your baby if you are a smoker.