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Bed-Sharing 'Unlikely' To Have Much Effect On A Child's Development, Expert Says

But there are still physical risks.
Oktay Ortakcioglu via Getty Images

Is there anything more controversial in the parenting world than the topic of bed-sharing?

Well, probably, because everyone has an opinion on anything related to child-rearing, but sleeping arrangements are pretty high up there.

A professor of child development has thrown his hat into the ring by pointing out that, in terms of psychological health, there's little scientific evidence about either the benefits or harms of bed-sharing since researchers can't ethically conduct experiments on the topic.

"They cannot ask one group of mothers to co-sleep and another not to do this," David Messer, Professor of Child Development at the Open University, told The Independent.

"It's also is important to understand that babies and children experience many different aspects of care ... so it is unlikely that something like bed-sharing is going to have a powerful effect on later development."

There are still physical risks to sleeping with young children, Dr. Yoni Schwab points out.
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There are still physical risks to sleeping with young children, Dr. Yoni Schwab points out.

Cultural preferences matter

In response to a 2012 reader question on, clinical psychologist Yoni Schwab noted that sharing a bed with your baby or child does not have negative psychological outcomes for the child, as long as it fits into the "cultural preferences" of the family.

"In communities where co-sleeping is widely practiced (as it is in much of the world) or where parents make a conscious choice to co-sleep, studies show there are no negative psychological effects on kids compared [to] those who sleep independently," Schwab said in response to a widowed mother who had been sharing a bed with her son since the traumatic death of the boy's father.

However, Schwab also noted that "when it does not fit into cultural norms or when parents have not been successful in getting a child to sleep independently, studies show there are negative effects."

Schwab also noted the "serious physical risks" of co-sleeping.

There are still physical risks

The safest place for a baby to sleep is on their back in a crib in your room, at least for the first six months, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS). Bed-sharing is not recommended since it can increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or suffocation, the society adds.

"Adult beds are not designed with infant safety in mind," CPS said on their website, noting that infants can become trapped between the mattress and the wall, can fall off a bed, can suffocate in soft bedding, or a parent can mistakenly smother their infant by rolling onto it.

Babies should always sleep on their backs.
Ruslan Dashinsky via Getty Images
Babies should always sleep on their backs.

Products designed for co-sleeping, such as infant beds that attach to an adult bed, are not recommended by Health Canada, CPS said.

Changing guidelines

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a set of new recommendations that underscored the dangers of bed-sharing, but placed a greater emphasis on the benefits of room-sharing. Specifically, babies should sleep in their parents' room (but in their own crib) for at least a year to reduce the risk of SIDS.

But the AAP also recommended that overnight feedings happen in the adult bed instead of on a couch or a comfy chair, because at least a bed can be cleared of bedding and cushions. The risk of falling asleep while feeding a baby on a couch is much more severe, the AAP said.

Sleeping on sofas poses a high risk of infant death.
SolStock via Getty Images
Sleeping on sofas poses a high risk of infant death.

"We recognize the fact that not only do mothers often inadvertently fall asleep with the infant in their bed, but many mothers choose to bed-share," co-author Lori Feldman-Winter said.

"We thought it was prudent to provide guidance on making the bed-sharing arrangement as safe as possible and provide guidance on what populations are most at risk when bed-sharing."

CORRECTION- Dec. 22, 2017: An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited Dr. Yoni Schwab as the expert who says bed-sharing likely won't have psychological effects on children. The expert in question is David Messer. The post has been updated to include Messer's comments and clarify the timing and full scope of Schwab's comments."

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