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Aside from making night-time feedings effortless, shared sleep patterns may also play a role in reducing the risk of SIDS. SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, takes the lives of thousands of seemingly healthy babies every year. There are many theories, but no one has yet determined what causes SIDS, or if it can be prevented. Dr. William Sears, pediatrician and father of eight, has written a book on SIDS in which he discusses the current research and formulates a plausible theory of the cause of SIDS. He believes that the family bed (his preferred term is "shared sleep") can reduce the risk of SIDS because the presence of the mother helps the infant to regulate his sleep states and breathing patterns. This idea is supported by cross-cultural research. Where the family bed is the norm, rates of SIDS are far lower than among populations of solitary sleepers.
A study comparing the sleeping patterns of twenty-two infants who later died of SIDS, to an age-matched control group, found that the SIDS-susceptible infants had more and longer periods of deep sleep. This was most significant in the early morning hours, when SIDS most often occurs. [source: Schechtman, "Sleep state organization in normal infants and victims of the sudden infant death syndrome.", Pediatrics, 89 (5 Pt 1):865-70, 1992.] Dr. McKenna's research suggests that a mother sharing her bed with her infant will breastfeed three times more often during the night than one who sleeps in another room. Having the baby in your bed makes it easy to check and adjust her position, and bedding, and most sleep-sharing mothers do this many times during the night. For a SIDS-susceptible infant, these patterns could be life-saving.