In most of the world, it is common practice for parents and babies to sleep together. In the United States and several other countries, including Britain, Germany, and parts of western Europe, parents tend to put babies in their own beds and usually in a separate room. This custom is largely due to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warnings about the potential for falls or accidental suffocation of the infant by the co-sleeping parent.1 The fear is that tired or intoxicated parents could roll onto their infants while sleeping.
According to Robert LeVine, professor of education and human development, emeritus, Harvard University, and Sarah LeVine, former research fellow in human development, also at Harvard, American parents need to ease up. They believe that, while it is true that many non-Western countries have higher infant mortality rates than the U.S., “there’s no reason to think that has anything to do with co-sleeping.”2
These researchers note that in Japan, parent-child co-sleeping is the norm, and their infant mortality rate is one of the lowest in the world at 2.8 deaths per 1,000 live births compared with 6.2 in the U.S.2 3 The rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in Japan in 2005 was 0.16 per 1,000 live births, which was notably less than the SIDS rate of 0.54 per 1,000 live births in the U.S.2 4
The LeVines argue that, far from being dangerous, there are major benefits for the infant in co-sleeping with the mother. It helps calm the baby and regulate its nervous system through a process of “physiological synchronization” between mother and baby.2 Citing studies by biological anthropologist James McKenna, the optimal sleeping arrangement for a baby is what he calls “breastsleeping,” where baby and mother sleep together and the mother breastfeeds responsively.2
1 American Academy of Pediatrics. Bed Sharing Remains Greatest Risk Factor for Sleep Related Infant Deaths. AAP.org July 14, 2014.
2 LeVine R and LeVine S. It’s OK to Sleep Next to Your Infant Child. In Fact, It’s Beneficial. Los Angeles Times. Sept. 16, 2016.
3 Raines K. Why is the U.S. Infant Mortality Rate So High? The Vaccine Reaction May 9, 2016.
4 Georgetown University. Table 3. International Comparison of SIDS and Postneonatal Mortality* (PNM) Rates per 1,000 Live Births, 1990–2005. National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health