Before I had kids, the word co-sleeping once felt like it was from a foreign tongue — one spoken only by hippie commune-dwelling mamas, or fervently religious homeschooling zealots. I never had anything against either of those groups; it just wasn’t who I saw myself being, and so I never thought I’d be using the c-word.
Flash forward to today, when it rolls off my tongue without even a second’s pause.
It was clear from early on that co-sleeping was going to work for my family. We tried other things — the cradle next to the bed, a crib — but my daughter always slept better when she was lying next to me. I slept better, too, but not at the beginning. Instead, I was hyper-vigilant: sleeping in long-sleeved shirts and pants so that I could avoid needing any blankets on the bed, removing all pillows and the mattress pad from the bed, keeping the temperature at the correct setting so that my daughter wouldn’t overheat, and sleeping very lightly until I was convinced that she was hardy enough to survive the night.
During my pregnancy, I was surrounded by women who understood how common co-sleeping was and who were intent on making sure everyone knew how to co-sleep safely. Not everyone has that same luck. They taught me that co-sleeping is a thing that a lot of people do — not just the hippies and the homeschoolers — but that not everyone does correctly.
The thing is, it is very difficult to predict what is going to work for you and your baby. A parent who has no intention of co-sleeping and thus learns nothing about it may nonetheless find herself desperately bringing baby into the bed to breastfeed then falling asleep on a pillow with a blanket pulled tight, simply because she is exhausted and doesn’t know the dangers of co-sleeping unsafely. In these cases, when parents who did not intend to co-sleep unexpectedly find themselves co-sleeping, it is more likely that their babies will end up in an unsafe sleeping environment.
In order to combat these risks, I would love to see some adjustments in the way doctors approach co-sleeping. Instead of telling new parents not to do it at all, everyone should receive education on how to co-sleep safely, should they decide to do it. I like these guidelines from the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at Notre Dame, which frame the task as creating a safe sleep environment for baby, regardless of where baby sleeps. No pillows, no bedding, no soft surfaces, and no parents using alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs in the crib or in the shared bed.
In the end, I view it in much the same light as abstinence-only sex education. Consenting adults are going to have sex, so they should know how to do it safely. Many consenting parents are going to co-sleep, and they need to know how to do that safely, too.
Tiffany Frye manages a small but growing childcare and coworking cooperative and works as a managing editor for science publications. She lives in Durham, NC, with her husband and daughter.