Room sharing with your baby may help prevent SIDS—but it means everyone gets less sleep

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the best place for a baby to sleep is in his parents’ bedroom. He should sleep in his own crib or bassinet (or in a co-sleeper safely attached to the bed), but shouldn’t be in his own room until he is at least 6 months, better 12 months. This is because studies have shown that when babies are close by, it can help reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics, however, points out a downside to this: babies don’t sleep as well, and by extension, neither do their parents.

Researchers found that “early independent sleepers,” babies who slept in their own room before 4 months, slept longer, and for longer stretches, than babies who slept in their parents’ room. At 9 months, these babies were better sleepers, not just compared to those who slept in their parents’ room, but also to those who transitioned to their own room between 4 and 9 months.

This is no small thing for sleep-deprived parents. Even a few extra minutes can make all the difference — and given that research suggests that sleeping well in infancy improves the chances of sleeping well in childhood, the study seems to suggest that getting babies out of their parents’ room from the get-go could be a real sanity saver.

The study also found that babies who shared a room with their parents were four times more likely to end up in their parents’ bed during the night — and more likely to have pillows, blankets, and other unsafe stuff around when they sleep. Interestingly, babies who slept in a different room were more likely to have a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine, something that has been shown to help babies sleep better.

But as with most things in medicine, it’s not that simple.

As was pointed out in a commentary accompanying the study, early “sleep consolidation,” or sleeping many hours at once, isn’t necessarily a good thing. The ability to wake easily is important and may be critical in preventing SIDS. The waking up that happens with room sharing may be the exact thing that protects the baby.

It should be pointed out, too, that infancy doesn’t last forever. As much as it can feel like an eternity of being woken at night, the fact is that over time, most babies learn to sleep through the night and give their parents a break.

Also, having the baby sleep nearby helps with breastfeeding. It’s a simple fact that because breast milk is digested more quickly than formula, breastfed babies tend to eat more frequently than formula-fed babies. When babies are in another room, it’s harder and mothers may give up and switch to formula earlier.

It would be so easy if there were rules for parenting that worked for every family, but that’s just not the case. Every family and every child is different; in every situation, it’s about weighing risks and benefits.

Room sharing can help prevent SIDS and support breastfeeding, that’s clear. Also, room sharing doesn’t mean that babies can’t have a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine; it may be tempting to keep the baby up until the parents go to bed, but it doesn’t have to be that way. But the benefits of room sharing diminish when room sharing becomes bed sharing, or when other rules of safe sleep (like no pillows) get broken. Safe sleep, and good sleep routines, should happen no matter where a baby sleeps.

At the same time, if room sharing means that parents aren’t getting any sleep because they are woken by every baby whimper and squeak, that’s not good for anybody — and if the parents’ relationship is suffering significantly because they don’t feel that they can or should be intimate near the baby, that’s not good for anybody either.

What’s important is that parents know the recommendations, and the facts behind those recommendations. Once they have that information, they should work with their pediatrician to make the decisions that make the most sense for their child’s safety, their sanity, and the overall health and well-being of their family.

Comments:

  1. Maria

    I’ve had 3 children, breast fed all, all 3 shared our room for several months each and I have some thoughts to add.
    My first born slept through the night for the first 3 wks, 8 hours min. He slept in a bassinet and when he made movements or tiny noises – did not get him up – checked on him, but he was sleeping. We learned that babies make noises but don’t wake up until they wake up – don’t help them. When he grew too large, he kept waking himself up, that’s when he went to his own room, in crib. Wether nursing or bottle feeding, wait for the baby to wake, espec in the middle of the night – do not train them to sleep erratically. Only when they were going through growth spurts did any of them eat every 2 hours, other than that, it was at least 4. Learned, each will be different, work with it as much as possible. They get accustomed to life rhythms very quickly without needing a rigid schedule. Get a good book on nursing, even if you don’t, learn the physiology of how a baby eats. My third nursed right away, but of course, I had no milk yet. So, alone, in my room at the hosp, I gave her formula from the kit they always provided me. She took an ounce and went right to sleep. Then proceeded to nurse regularly after that. Also, let nursing babies nurse til they’re done (within reason), you’re body will produce to fill the demand. When you have too much, express/pump it, date the bag and freeze it and you’ll have in an emergency. No nipple confusion…a hungry baby will eat. Question, observe and learn. Most nurse for the same length of time, are pleasant, alert and will sleep for a good block of time. If they don’t nurse for more than 5 mins, have a trained professional check if child is tongue tied…yes, it’s a real thing, ask me how I know.