Babies in bed – is it a health risk?

It’s a hugely contentious subject – should you let your baby sleep with you, or is having them in your bed with you putting their life at risk?

Between 50 and 60 babies die unexpectedly in New Zealand every year of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), some while sleeping with adults.

over the years, coroners have repeatedly called for parents to be educated about the dangers of co-sleeping with their infants, and yet another plea has come from Rotorua coroner Dr Wallace Bain, who earlier this year had to rule on the cases of four babies who died after sleeping with adults or older children.

He says the deaths were tragedies that were, in his view, avoidable, and babies in New Zealand are dying unnecessarily.

SIDS is a tricky subject, because doctors can’t always pinpoint why some babies go to sleep and never wake up, while others in a similar sleeping situation can be fine.

What researchers do know is that when it comes to sharing a bed with a child aged under one, there are certain factors that increase their risk of dying. The most important one is smoking – experts everywhere agree that babies should never sleep with a smoker, nor should they co-sleep if their mum smoked during pregnancy.

This is because exposure to nicotine is thought to affect a survival mechanism which gives a baby the ability to sense if it’s being deprived of oxygen and move its head so it can breathe properly.

A substance found in nicotine may also affect a vulnerable baby’s cardio-respiratory system.

Meanwhile, parents who have taken drugs or drunk alcohol should also never sleep with a baby, because it can send them into such a deep sleep they may not even realise if they’ve rolled onto the baby or covered its face with their arm mid-sleep.

Being excessively tired could also bring similar results.

Age may also be a factor, as there’s an increased risk of babies under three months old dying while co-sleeping, whether their parents are smokers or not.

A percentage of supporters of co-sleeping say if you follow those rules and take other precautions – such as not having the baby in a bed with soft blankets that could cover their head – then co-sleeping is safe and also beneficial for both mum and child.

The main benefit is that it can make breastfeeding easier. When the baby cries to be fed, oum is right there and can respond quickly, without having to get out of bed. This can encourage her to breastfeed for longer – one study showed that mothers who sleep with their babies breastfeed twice as long on average as mums who don’t co-sleep.

It may also help babies to be more settled and feel more secure at night.

Proponents of co-sleeping also say that being right next to your baby may make you more aware if there’s some kind of breathing problem in the night and, as you’re close at hand, you can do something about it.

They point out that in many cultures around the world, co-sleeping is a normal part of life, and SIDS statistics are much lower in the countries where it’s the norm than they are here.

But they say parents who want to co-sleep should take heed of guidelines, including:

  • Always sleep on a firm surface like a solid mattress – never a water bed, sofa or beanbag.

  • Don’t put the baby on a pillow or under blankets that can cover their head.

  • Don’t have any stuffed toys or pillows around them.

  • Make sure there are no gaps between the bed and a wall or headboard where the baby’s head could get stuck.

  • Don’t let older siblings sleep with babies.

However, other experts say that co-sleeping is probably the biggest risk for SIDS after smoking and, to avoid tragedy, the best thing to do is not to share a bed with a small baby.

The oinistry of Health says bed-sharing is fine for cuddles and breastfeeding, but babies should be in a safe space when parents go to sleep, preferably in a cot or bassinet beside a parent’s bed, until they are six months old.

In an article in the British oedical Journal, Edwin oitchell – professor of child health research at the University of Auckland – wrote, “The major disagreement in the bed-sharing debate is whether the advice to avoid bed-sharing should apply at all times in the first six months of life, or whether it’s acceptable to condone or even encourage bed-sharing in the small group that hasn’t been shown to be at increased risk – infants of mothers who don’t smoke, who are aged three months or more, and whose mothers haven’t taken alcohol or drugs and don’t co-sleep on a couch.

“Parents have the right to know this information and all health professionals should advise parents that the safest place for an infant to sleep is in a cot beside the parents’ bed in the first six months of life.”

Sleep soundlyWhile co-sleeping is a controversial topic among parents and experts alike, the oinistry of Health’s official recommendation is to place babies in a safe place before the parent goes to sleep, preferably in a cot or bassinet in the parent’s bedroom. Such precautions should be followed until the baby is older than six months.

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