A recent study has found that infants who frequently share a bed with at least one parent for a period of five or more hours per night, are at a higher risk of experiencing oxygen drops in the night – causing baby to “rebreathe” air that they’ve already exhaled.
However most of these babies were found to cope with these drops in oxygen. According to Sally Baddock, an associate professor of midwifery at Otago Polytech in New Zealand, these bed-sharing infants were at a low risk of sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS] and were able to remain safe by reacting effectively.
What the study says
Using infrared monitors, this New Zealand study analysed forty healthy babies between the ages of 0-6 months. These results were compared to forty infants who did not share beds with their parent[s].
“The bed-share infants experienced more desaturation events and were more often exposed to rebreathing,” reports Sally Baddock, an associate professor of midwifery at Otago Polytech in New Zealand
Baddock explains that [oxygen] desaturation pertains to a drop in the oxygen levels carried in the blood. She further explains that mild oxygen desaturation is common in healthy babies, but may become hazardous in warmer environments. She says that desaturation may become severe for co-sleeping infants as surroundings are warmer.
Baddock reports that the infants inhaled carbon dioxide, rather than oxygen, more frequently. This means that they were breathing in oxygen, breathing out carbon dioxide then were likely to breathe in the same carbon dioxide air all over again. This is what Baddock refers to as “rebreathing”. She explains that this was largely owing to the presence of bedding or parents clothing.
“For example, if your head is under a blanket, you may be breathing the same air in and out over time. This will mean the air will come to contain increasing levels of carbon dioxide and decreasing levels of oxygen,” said Baddock.
She explains that this process of “rebreathing” can become dangerous for infants in severe circumstances.
In the study, infants increased their inhalation speed to maintain normal oxygen levels. This enabled them to cope, even though the study reported that in the event that their heads were covered by bedding, their parent[s] would frantically remove it. This shows that safe-guarding was present in co-sleeping which discouraged “rebreathing”. The problem is when the circumstances become unfavourable for the infant’s breathing.
Such cases involve infants who share the same bed with a current smoker or a mother who had smoked during pregnancy. They also include parents who had been drinking — which could result in decreased alertness while sleeping.
Is bed-sharing a no-no?
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) promotes room sharing, as opposed to bed-sharing with parents and their infants.
Latoya Bates, Director of the Centre for Infant and Child Loss at the University of Maryland School of Medicine says that bed-sharing may increase the likelihood for sudden infant deaths [SIDS], accidental suffocation, wedging and entrapment. “Who’s to say which babies it’s good for?” she says.
Dr McKenna, Head of the Mother-Baby Behavioural Sleep Lab at the University of Notre Dame believes this recent study conveys a fair message.
“They argue that it is not enough to simply judge a practice like bed-sharing as being simply ‘dangerous’ without first determining what kind of bed-sharing is involved and who is involved,” said Dr Mckenna.
Generalising bed-sharing as ‘bad’ altogether is not enough if we do not closely analyse the infants to which it pertains, she insists.
Baddock says that since bed-sharing is a valued practice for many parents, the circumstances that would increase the risks for an infant should be noted and considered.
Benefits of co-sleeping
Bed-sharing, as pointed out by the new study, may be hazardous in instances where parents are not rightfully attentive. This, however, does not make the overall practice ‘bad.’ In fact, co-sleeping has benefits that should be distinguished. Studies have shown that co-sleeping has several. Such as:
- “When a child routinely goes to sleep in the presence of an adult or with an adult holding her, it’s extremely rare to find thumb sucking or attachment to security objects,” said Dr. Jay Gordon, author of Good Nights: The Happy Parents’ Guide to the Family Bed.
- Contrary to popular belief, co-sleeping encourages self-reliant behaviour rather than dependency amongst infants. This is shown by a lack for their need to rely on external objects. The independence encourages a higher self-esteem and reduces the likelihood of being susceptible to peer-pressure.
- The World Health Organisation (WHO) agrees that co-sleeping encourages breastfeeding. These babies also reap some physiological benefits as they learn early nurturing practices. The WHO suggests that infants — at birth — are at their most neurologically immature and that mother-infant contact prevents babies from physiological and environmental problems throughout their childhood.
- In fact, paediatrician and author/co-author of several parenting books Dr. William Sears says, “Over the past thirty years of observing bed-sharing families in our paediatric practice, we have noted one medical benefit that stands out; these babies thrive. ‘Thriving’ means not only getting bigger, but also growing to your full potential, emotionally, physically and intellectually. Perhaps, it’s the extra touch that stimulates development, or perhaps the extra feedings (yes, sleep sharing infant’s breastfeed more often than solo sleepers).”
Although there are risks associated with parents sharing their beds with infants — preventive measures can be taken to reduce your baby’s risk of SIDS, accidental suffocation, wedging and entrapment.
While co-sleeping is not recommended by the AAP, other experts agree that there are benefits to this valued practice. Dr. Sears says that these babies “thrive” later on in life and gain physiological benefits. The decision to co-sleep with your infant is ultimately yours – but parents must be mindful of the precautions that must be taken.