The family bedroom: Room sharing can significantly reduce the risk of SIDS

Stephanie Holden doesn’t have a complicated, well-researched reason as to why she and her husband decided to keep their newborn in a cradle in their room after he was born.

“It seemed easier and made us less nervous,” the New Holland mom says. “As first-time parents, the idea of going to sleep while there was a baby in the house just seemed so odd. We felt like we had to have our eyes on him 24/7, but people have to sleep!”

What Holden didn’t realize is that she was doing exactly what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents to do. In its recently updated policy statement for a safe sleeping environment for infants, the AAP advises that infant should sleep in the parents’ room, close to the parents’ bed, but on a separate surface designed for infants, ideally for the first year of life, but at least for the first six months.

The arrangement has been shown to decrease the risk of SIDS by as much as 50 percent, according to the AAP. The statement recommends use of an infant crib, portable crib, play yard or bassinet, placed in the parents’ bedroom until the child’s first birthday.

Michael Goodstein, M.D., a neonatologist at WellSpan/York Hospital, was one of the authors of the AAP policy statement. He says such studies are meant to help guide physicians and parents. The statements are revisited every three years, at which time they are reaffirmed, retired or revised.

“We’ve had concerns about where and how babies sleep for some time,” Goodstein says. The room sharing idea has been part of AAP recommendations since 2011, but the most recent revision made it more specific and obvious, he explains. And it gave special weight to following the practice for six months, at least.

Goodstein says 90 percent of SIDS deaths occur in the first six months, so that’s why the timeframe exists in the statement.

Comfort in being closer

Holden says having her son Parker in the same room was a real comfort for everyone involved.

“Having him right by our bed kept us from worrying that we wouldn’t hear him if he cried,” she says. “We also felt better being able to just glance at him if we woke up and make sure that he was okay without having to walk into the other room.” Holden adds that she believes that babies can tell when their parents are nearby. “He was just always more settled when he was close to us,” she says.

That’s very much a part of what Goodstein and the other policy statement authors hope parents will realize with this sleeping setup. Part of the policy reads: “Placing the crib close to the parents’ bed so that the infant is within view and reach can facilitate feeding, comforting, and monitoring of the infant.”

Parker moved to his own room when he was about 4 months old, when he learned to roll over and his parents felt better about having him in a crib than a cradle. He’s 3 now and generally sleeps by himself in his room all night.

Goodstein says it is hard to say exactly why it’s better to have a baby sleep in the same room as his or her parents. The data covers a lot of potential factors, and although the research looks at correlations, Goodstein says there’s no cut-and-dried reason. One hypothesis he shares is that because SIDS results from a failure to arouse/wake up/move if something is obstructing a baby’s breathing, having other people in the room might be enough to promote small awakenings that could keep babies from getting into such a deep sleep that they could become unresponsive. It also allows parents like Holden to do quick, minor checks on babies in case of some problem.

Sweet slumber: a guide to infant safe sleep

Breastfeeding mothers often find room sharing more convenient because of the proximity to the baby, Goodstein says. He notes that breastfeeding is a known help in preventing SIDS.

Tetyana Vernskyy of Boiling Springs has five children ages 11 and younger. Three of those children slept in their parents’ bedroom as infants, including the daughter who’s currently 2 months old.

“We found it’s really beneficial,” Vernskyy says of the room-sharing. She and her husband have a bassinet in their bedroom close to the bed. The mother says she appreciates having her babies close to her so she can respond to little noises that may signify hunger or discomfort before they become big noises that disrupt everyone’s sleep patterns.

“It’s easy to take care of the situation (when the baby is so close by),” she explains. Because she is the one nursing the children and generally listening for their cues, Vernskyy says the babies’ closeness has been a help for her but not a hindrance for her husband. She said her husband rarely even notices the nighttime exchanges, which is exactly what they had hoped for.

The couple took their cues from the babies themselves about when to put them into a different room. The two who never slept in their parents’ bedroom slept through the night from almost the beginning, she says. Each of the other three has moved (or will move) at a time that seems right for them.

Kristin Connolly of Boiling Springs kept each of her three sons in her bedroom as babies. The first two only stayed for six to eight weeks, but the youngest spent almost four months in a bassinet in the bedroom with mom and dad. Connolly says he was the first child she was able to breastfeed successfully, and his presence in the bedroom made that easier. She says the room sharing worked out well, although once they moved baby Brennan to his own room he started sleeping through the night. Connolly talked with her pediatrician and felt comfortable that moving the baby at that point was probably the right thing for their family.

Non-negotiable safety

While Goodstein says he’s happy to hear of parents who are using the guidelines in a way that works for them, he does caution that the AAP stands firmly that babies should not purposely share an adult bed with their parents. Sleeping in bed with an infant can be especially dangerous with babies under four months, if the parent is a smoker or on medication, if there are other kids in the bed, or if the baby is underweight. (The neonatologist also states that couches, cushioned armchairs, waterbeds or anywhere soft are never a good option for feeding or sleeping with a baby.)

At the same time, Goodstein says the AAP understands that sometimes mothers bring a baby into bed to breastfeed it, and sometimes they may fall asleep. The policy statement advises that mothers who find themselves in that situation put the baby back in a separate sleeping area as soon as they wake up and realize the situation.

“The world is not black and white,” Goodstein says. “We didn’t want people feeling guilty.”

Lisa Maddux is a freelance writer who lives in Boiling Springs with her husband and two daughters.

SIDS and safe sleep resources for parents and caregivers


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