The family bed: Is it safe?

My wife and our two-week-old son enjoy sharing sleep. Obviously they get more sleep this way. I have also heard that the family bed reduces the incidence of SIDS. Do you consider sharing sleep with a baby to be a safe practice?

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Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

Issues concerning bonding, sleeping and breastfeeding will always have emotional charges surrounding them. As a pediatrician, I think there are many instances in which the care of infants and children will have variations, which are not only acceptable but should be promoted.

Some researchers have made a connection between sleeping with an infant and a reduced incidence of SIDS. The studies to which you refer conclude that co-sleeping may reduce the risk of SIDS in those infants already at increased risk.

I could find no studies that show adults sleeping with infants to be a safe practice. A study in The Southern Medical Journal found that 7 percent of all "crib deaths" could be contributed to overlying, while The New England Journal of Medicine found non-alcohol/non-drug related overlying to be the cause of death in almost 20 percent of infants initially diagnosed with SIDS.

Though there has been a trend away from the diagnosis of overlying -- rolling on an infant and smothering them -- over the past twenty years, I feel that parents who share sleep with their babies do place them at risk. Overlying has been recognized as a cause of infant mortality as far back as Biblical times. It has been reported by some that the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) has increased among infants that shared beds with adults. Because the diagnosis of SIDS is made by excluding known causes of death and the assessment of circumstances surrounding the sudden death of an infant is often minimal, some researchers feel overlying is the actual cause of death.

The decision of sleeping arrangements should be under the parents' discretion. Though the odds are very much against an infant dying in this manner, it is my opinion that it is not safe to sleep with an infant.

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