The Department of Health's recommendation is that the safest place for your baby to sleep in the first six months is in a cot in your room. However, although most parents don’t plan to sleep with their baby, around half of all mums in the UK do so at some time in the first few months after birth. Sleeping in the same bed as your baby is called co-sleeping or bed sharing.
Some parents co-sleep with their baby for part of the night or during the day so that they can get more rest. They might breastfeed their baby while they doze or sleep, for instance, or co-sleep because they find it easier to settle their baby this way. Sometimes parents fall asleep accidently or without meaning to. This can be risky, particularly if this happens on a sofa or armchair (see section below).
It’s therefore important that all parents have accurate information about co-sleeping even if they don’t plan to do so, as many parents co-sleep with their baby or fall asleep accidentally.
Safety guidelines for co-sleeping with your baby
The Department of Health advises that sharing a bed with your baby should be avoided if one or both parents:
- Is a smoker (even if you don't smoke in the bedroom).
- Has consumed alcohol.
- Has taken any drugs that affect perception, cause drowsiness or affect depth of sleep.
- Is excessively tired to the extent that this might affect being able to respond to the baby.
The risks of co-sleeping are also increased if your child:
- Was born premature (37 weeks or less).
- Had a low birth weight (less than 2.5kg or 5.5lb).
- Has a fever or any signs of illness.
If you do decide to co-sleep, you need to:
- Make sure your baby can’t fall out of bed.
- Keep your baby cool by using sheets and blankets rather than a duvet.
- Always put your baby to sleep on their back rather than their front.
- Avoid letting your baby come near a pillow – babies don’t need a pillow until they are at least a year old.
- Never risk falling asleep with your baby on a sofa or armchair. If you’re feeling really tired and think you may fall asleep with your baby while feeding or cuddling them on a sofa or armchair, move to a bed (keeping in mind the safety guidelines above) or, if possible, ask your partner, friend or family member to look after them while you get some rest.
National co-sleeping guidelines
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) updated its recommendations about co-sleeping in December 2014 and confirmed that although Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is rare, it does happen more often when parents or carers sleep with a baby (on a bed, sofa or chair).
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS is the term used to describe the sudden and unexpected death of a baby that remains unexplained after thorough investigation. Other medical terms that can be used are Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) or Sudden Unexpected Death in Childhood (SUDC), if the baby was over 12 months old.
The NICE guidance doesn't distinguish between co-sleeping on sofas or chairs and bed-sharing although there is evidence that it is more dangerous to fall asleep with a baby on a sofa or chair.
The guidance also confirmed that the link between SIDS and co-sleeping is greater if either parent smokes, and may be greater if parents or carers have been drinking alcohol or taking drugs that affect their awareness.
What works for you
When it comes to sleep – different options will work for each family. What is most important is that you are familiar with the guidelines around safety and take appropriate steps to make sure you and your baby sleep in the safest way possible.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Find all the latest research-based evidence about infant sleep, including co-sleeping, on the Infant Sleep Information Source (ISIS) website.