Sleep wars: To co-sleep or not to co-sleep

Parents, pediatricians, and experts continue to disagree on the subject

Experts discuss sleeping with your children

I can’t remember exactly why I decided to co-sleep, but I sort of adopted an attachment style of parenting,” says Annemarie Juliano, who lives in Staatsburg with her daughter. “It just made sense for me to have my daughter in my bed due to her nursing schedule.”

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More than ten years after the initial research that sparked heated discussion over co-sleeping, conflicting opinions on the practice still dominate the headlines. This national debate is no less controversial within the Hudson Valley, where parents, pediatricians, and health experts also disagree over what is safest for baby.

Parents divided

Co-sleeping was a fairly common practice in the United States up until the 19th century, when children began being given their own rooms. But with the relatively recent attachment parenting movement, came a rise in the number of co-sleepers who are vocal advocates for the practice.

Michelle Pasquazi, a mother of two who lives in Poughkeepsie, says that co-sleeping was a way for her to easily breastfeed and to monitor her son.
“My son’s autistic and was very ill with numerous ear infections and respiratory issues. I had to get up a lot of the night to make sure he was breathing,” says Pasquazi. “As for my daughter, I still nurse her so I feel it’s easier and safer than for my daughter to come look for me in the middle of the night.”

Other parents feel the risk of co-sleeping outweighs the benefits. “I never really co-slept with my kids based purely on the reason that I tend to be a rule follower and all the pediatricians and doctors strongly encourage you not to,” says one mother who would sit in a rocking chair for her nighttime feedings. 

Occasionally, she would fall asleep with her child in her arms or bring the kids into bed because she was so exhausted. But that ended when her husband worked with a young man who rolled over on his child and suffocated him. Her husband became adamantly against bed sharing, so their fourth child never shared their bed.

Tightening the bond

“Although we were taught to discourage it from a safety perspective, co-sleeping seems to tighten the bond between parent and child the first year. It certainly facilitates breastfeeding,” says Poughkeepsie based pediatrician Joseph Malak, MD. “Moreover, it just seems the natural thing to do.”
Malak feels bed sharing is mostly a personal decision, but would suggest trying a co-sleeper or bassinette. “This seems like the best way to obtain the benefits of co-sleeping while avoiding the risks of the family bed,” says Malak.

The Safe Sleep Campaign, launched by the Orange County Health Department, advocates for babies sleeping by themselves. Their pdf document states that “
Babies should sleep by themselves. Although it may be convenient to have your child sleep with you it poses a great risk of accidental suffocation".


Disputed research

The most often cited anti-co-sleeping research was published in 1999 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The report stated that there were an average of 64 babies under the age of 2 who died each year due to suffocation and strangulation in adult beds. The report resulted in a firestorm of media reports warning parents never to sleep with their children in adult beds.

In the years since the report, this conclusion has been disputed by co-sleeping advocates who say the study didn’t take into account the overall epidemic of Sudden Infant Death (SIDS) statistics when drawing its recommendation. During the study period, on average 4,250 SIDS deaths occurred each year.
Noted pediatrician, William Sears, MD, argues that “until a legitimate survey is done to determine how many babies sleep with their parents, and this is factored into the rate of SIDS in a bed versus a crib, it is unwarranted to state that sleeping in a crib is safer than a bed.”

Sears’ position is echoed by advocates who cite research in support of safe co-sleeping, and benefits to breastfeeding, parenting/child bonding and various positive behavioral outcomes when parents bed share. However, organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Orange County Health Department continue to warn against the hazards of adults sharing a bed with an infant and, instead, advocate “close but separate” by using a crib, bassinet, or arms-reach type co-sleeper in the same room as the parent to achieve what they feel are similar benefits.

Final decision

While each side of the co-sleeping debate feels strongly about their position, parents are left to decide what is right for their family as they wade through the voluminous amount of information on the topic. “Ours is the first generation to use search engines, online libraries. It’s overwhelming, and not at all difficult to find conflicting recommendations,” says Malak. “At some point, when a decision has to be made, especially when things are not clear-cut, we have to go with mom’s gut.”


Janine Boldrin is a freelance writer who lives in West Point with her family.