“Co-sleeping’s not for me”, I vowed, before having my first child, when both my parenting and my baby were purely hypothetical. I knew co-sleeping carried risks, so I intended to avoid it all together. I would diligently follow the Department of Health's recommendation and put my hypothetical baby to sleep on her hypothetical back in a cot in the same room as me. I didn’t do any reading around the subject of co-sleeping, because it wasn’t for me. I am sure it must have been covered during my NCT classes but I think I must have zoned out because, as I have already mentioned, co-sleeping wasn’t for me.
Then my baby was born. The majority of my well-made plans became redundant fairly quickly. The nights were long. The days were long. The feeds were long. The sleep was not long. My baby was happiest being held. She evidently had not familiarised herself with the Department of Health recommendations before exiting the uterus because, quite often, she would not agree to being put on her back in a cot. The exhaustion hit and, when it did, I occasionally found myself dozing off with my baby asleep on my chest either in bed at night or – gulp – in the daytime on the sofa. The thing is, I had never really equated a nap on the sofa in the daytime or the occasional doze with a sleeping baby still latched on at night as co-sleeping. But it was co-sleeping. Furthermore, it was unintentional co-sleeping; poorly thought out and done without a proper appraisal of the risks. With baby number 2, I followed the same path; occasional, unplanned co-sleeping with no concerted effort to minimise the risks.
Headlines today flagged that the deaths of two babies a week are linked to co-sleeping; 141 babies died after co-sleeping over the last year. As Francine Bates, chief executive of The Lullaby Trust, which promotes expert advice on safer baby sleep, raises awareness of SIDS and provides emotional support for bereaved families, pointed out in the wake of these reports, “The cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) remains unknown and therefore it cannot be said that in the case of those babies who sadly died that co-sleeping was the cause. All that is known is that co-sleeping was identified as a risk factor that was present.” SIDS has, nonetheless, been associated with co-sleeping (whether in the daytime or night-time, and whether in bed, on the sofa or in a chair) so it is crucial that everyone understands the risks. It is also imperative that people understand how to make co-sleeping as safe as possible and how to minimise the risks before they do it. Stigmatising is unhelpful, because the practice is widespread: findings by the Infant Sleep Information Service (ISIS) stated that on any given night in the UK, about 20% of all babies were sleeping in their parents’ beds. Some 70% of parents had their babies in bed with them for some part of the night on some nights of the week.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines on postnatal care up to 8 weeks after birth provide recommendations on co-sleeping and SIDS. These cover the first year of a baby’s life. They highlight an increased association between co-sleeping and SIDS when:
the baby’s parent(s) or carer(s) smokes
the parent or carer has recently consumed alcohol or drugs
the baby was of a low birth weight or premature
The Lullaby Trust helpfully pads out this guidance, confirming that: it applies even if you do not smoke in the bedroom; reference to drugs includes any medications that may make you drowsy; a low birth weight means 2.5kg/5½ lbs or less; and premature means birth before 37 weeks. It goes further than the NICE guidelines, stating that:
you should never sleep together with your baby if you are extremely tired
you must be especially careful when giving feeds that you are not in a position where you could both fall asleep in the bed together
sleeping on a sofa or armchair with your baby can increase the risk of SIDS by 50 times and should always be avoided
For me, being extremely tired was the crux of the problem, and probably the cause of my unintentional co-sleeping in the first place. If I were to have a third baby, on balance I am sure I would co-sleep again as the need arose. But I would do so intentionally, taking thought out and appropriate steps to make the arrangement as safe as possible. In particular, I would avoid dozing off on the sofa with my baby, retiring to the bedroom instead if I felt there was even the slightest chance of me nodding off. I would always try to settle baby in the cot but, failing that, I would make sure that there were no pillows, sheets, blankets or any other items in the bed which could obstruct my baby’s breathing or cause baby to overheat. This is in line with The Lullaby Trust’s suggestions on how to minimise the risks, because a high proportion of infants who die as a result of SIDS are found with their head covered by loose bedding.
I don’t feel proud of the risks I took. My actions were pretty reckless. I hope that by sharing my own story of my poorly thought-out, in-the-moment choices I may raise awareness among other parents. I think it was too easy, despite knowing the risks, to fall back on an “it will never happen to me” attitude, particularly when I was trying, with the very best of intentions, to minimise and soothe my baby’s distress. But it could have been me. I was one of the lucky ones. Not every parent is so lucky, and I extend my sincerest condolences to any parent who has experienced the unimaginable grief of the loss of an infant through SIDS, whatever the circumstances.