Baby in Bed: What’s So Bad About Co-Sleeping?

New parents and the spook factor of SIDS.

In the night, when the hours before the workday begins dwindle down toward zero, my wife and I often bring a fussy newborn boy to bed with us.

The warnings are never far from my mind. Co-sleeping, letting a baby sleep in mom and dad’s bed, is one of the leading risk factors for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

I’d say Lisa and I have gone against doctor’s orders on this for a few reasons: The first two are our own sleeplessness and a real desire to soothe our boys. But sentiment is involved, too.

The magic of mom and dad’s bed has never been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny. But I know from my own experience as a child and now these early days as a parent that the narcotic effect of those particular bed sheets is real. I have an inordinate number of memories from my childhood, including trying to sneak into bed with my parents. And I confess: Even as an adult, when I came home to visit, I’d pass by their open bedroom door and find myself lingering there, eyeing the pillows and bedclothes.

In my 20s and early 30s, before my mother passed away, the old parental bed was long gone. My parents had also moved more than a half-dozen times. But I still felt the primal pull to lie down and relax into the familiar smells of mom and dad. Now it is my great pleasure to find that arranging our twins carefully in bed with me can create that same sense of peace in them. The other night, Eli kicked and hollered, mid-gas attack, till I laid him down next to me in bed.

Night, night, Eli.

This same week, I brought an irate Jack to bed and 90 minutes later I awoke to see him, eyes wide open, peacefully staring at me. He is 11 weeks old now, and at the corners of his lips the trace of an uncertain smile appeared. He cooed. And I felt, well, lifted.

More than 2,000 babies die in the U.S. each year from SIDS, and though the ailment has long been considered mysterious, the fog has cleared. In this case, the correlation of risk factors and tragedy really does seem to be the cause. In fact, the idea of a “syndrome”—an internal condition that fells the newborn—is beginning to look like a misnomer. So, while some researchers still look for exotic causes of SIDS, most of the attention is now focused on the brutally mundane: soft bedding, pillows, blankets, toys; a baby laid down to sleep on its belly or side; a parent, particularly one feeling the effects of drugs or alcohol, that rolls over on the child in the middle of the night.

“SIDS” babies, once thought to be victims of a mystery, are now thought to be suffocating.

Lisa and I are being very careful.

We haven’t been drinking since the babies were born. And neither of us uses drugs. My method, when we bring a baby to bed, is to lie on my side with one arm serving as a pillow for a child on his back. On average, one baby sleeps with us each night, and then only for one “shift” of 90 minutes or so. Further, well, what are the odds? Two thousand deaths amid four million live births is a thin chance—less than one tenth of one percent. And even at its worst, before public education efforts took effect, when SIDS claimed more than 5,000 babies in 1983 (out of some 3.6 million), we’re talking about the death of .138 in 100 babies—not much more than 1/10th of one percent.

If this last paragraph reads like an excuse, or like I am trying to convince myself that we’re not doing anything wrong, then I’ve written it correctly.

I’ve read the research. But deep in the night, when a baby is crying, and my wife and I are barely able to stand, PubMed articles lose their meaning. And the legacy I feel connected to isn’t tragic at all. The legacy I feel connected to is that of my own mother and father who—many years before SIDS was well researched—unknowingly risked my death for the sake of a little more sleep, a little more peace, and a cuddle.

You tell me: Was that wrong?