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Why Some of the Arguments Against Co-Sleeping Do More Harm Than Good

Updated on May 21, 2012

What This Is and Isn't About

Before wandering into this (somewhat mysteriously to me) controversial territory, I want to clarify what this is and isn't about. This is not about saying that everyone should co-sleep. This is also not about saying that no one should co-sleep. This is not about me coming to your house tonight and judging your family's sleeping arrangements, because I don't even know you and that would be really creepy. This is about some of the propaganda out there telling people that they should not co-sleep, and why it can do more harm than good.

Bottom line, my feeling is that everyone should do what is best for them and their families, while taking into account all the reliable evidence and information to help them make their decisions. I am against campaigns, on any issue, that tell people they absolutely can or cannot do something, when that argument is not based on reliable evidence or information.

It is Harmful to Use Scare Tactics to Discourage Something (Co-Sleeping) That Can Be Beneficial and Whose Risks Can Be Minimized if Not Eliminated

It is harmful to tell people that they can't do something that may in fact be necessary or even beneficial to their lives simply because of some risks that can be avoided.

Let me start with an example. Driving a car carries many risks. If you text while you're driving, or eat in the car, or clip your nails (or any number of other ridiculous things I saw people doing while driving in the Bay Area), you are putting yourself and others in danger. There is very good evidence that these actions increase the risk of accidents, which can even result in death. Yet, do we simply tell people not to drive because of these risks? Because we are afraid that even if we tell people not to do them, they will do them anyway, and put themselves and others at risk? Does it seem absurd to even suggest that we would ban driving altogether because of these risks? Obviously, we don't ban driving. Instead, we tell people what to do in order to be as safe as possible while driving. This is probably because of our cultural belief (and really the reality of most of our society) that people need to drive to get around, and the benefits of driving, if we do it safely, outweigh its risks.

Now let's take the example of co-sleeping. There is some evidence that if done under certain specific circumstances (parent under the influence of drugs, seriously obese parent), there are risks. I don't believe this evidence even rises to the certainty of the evidence of the risks of driving, because these studies are obviously much harder to do, and causes of infant death are notoriously hard to determine. Regardless, for the sake of argument let's agree there are some risks in some circumstances. We are now in the exact same situation as the driving example again, when it seemed absurd to suggest that people not drive at all simply because some avoidable risks exist. Yet the Milwaukee Department of Health started an ad campaign in late 2011 saying that sharing your bed with your baby can be as dangerous as letting your baby sleep next to a butcher knife (complete with a picture of a baby sleeping next to a knife - no joke). Link to NY Times story about this is here.

Bottom line, I believe these type of scare tactics, without providing information about how to co-sleep safely, do far more harm than good. Further, the benefits associated with co-sleeping have been documented as well as the risks. These include proximity to the baby to be alert to any problems (possibly preventing deaths), increased bonding, facilitating breast-feeding, better sleep for some mothers and babies, and other benefits. Arguably, co-sleeping can be a far more beneficial practice than driving, yet we would never consider banning driving, and clearly there are those out there who would tell people to not co-sleep at all, despite the evidence of benefits.

It is Harmful to Simply Say Don't Do Something (Co-Sleeping) Without Explaining How to Do It Safely

If this rings a bell, it's probably because it sounds similar to the debate around abstinence-only sex education. I'm not sure how much more evidence will have to pile up that abstinence-only sex education simply is not effective before this debate can be put to sleep (whether it should co-sleep or not is another question!). Bottom line, I see a lot in common here. Some people belief that a practice (sex before marriage, or co-sleeping) is bad. These beliefs may come from how they were raised, religious beliefs, some research, what their friends believe, or any other number of souces.

I have no issue specifically with these beliefs, as long as people don't translate them into public policies that negatively impact other people's lives. The point at which that happens is when these people decide that no one should be educated about how to do either of these things safely. The part that bothers me about this is that they are (a) imposing their views on others, and (b) ignoring evidence that shows that increased knowledge about how to do something safely doesn't mean people will be more likely to do it. This is the part that really gets me. There is evidence that knowledge can literally save lives, in both scenarios.

Other Arguments Against Co-Sleeping That Just Don't Ring True With Me

There are a few other arguments against co-sleeping that get thrown around that are not as harmful as the above, in my mind, but still just don't make a ton of sense to me.

Argument #1: It Will Ruin Your Relationship With Your Partner. I think this one is so weird for a lot of reasons. This is not to say that for some people, it won't negatively impact their relationship - that's totally personal. It is to say that saying it will ruin everyone's relationship just doesn't make sense.

  1. If co-sleeping helps you sleep, you will be a much nicer person, and that will help your relationship. I know if I get one minute less than 8 hours, I am a total grump. We are a lot nicer to each other when we are both rested.
  2. If you are getting any other benefits from co-sleeping (easier breast-feeding, more comfortable knowing your baby is ok during the night, etc), that will make you a happier person, and a better parter.
  3. Obviously, the (sometimes) unspoken element of this is how will you do the proverbial "deed" if your kid is in bed with you. A couple responses to that one. First of all, not everyone co-sleeps with the kid in their bed. A lot of people (like us), have one parent lay down with the kid when they fall asleep and then go back in the room and sleep with them if they need comfort during the night. The rest of the time they sleep in a bed with their partner. Also, as many people have pointed out, there are no laws (at least not in states I've lived in) saying the bed is the only place you are allowed to "be together" as a couple. Finally, there's the reality aspect. Are all these non co-sleeping parents having 8 hour long love fests in their private beds all night? If so, more power too them. Somehow, it seems unlikely.

Argument #2: Your Kid Will Want to Sleep With You Until They Graduate From High School

  1. Everything I've read from real people who co-sleep with real children does not support this theory. I think it's part of our human tendancy to think that how things are now is how they will be forever. When applied to raising a human being who goes through many stages of development, it can be a little ridiculous.

Argument #3: You Will Be Seen as Weird

  1. This really depends on where you live, but I guess the bottom line is whether this is a good reason to drive any decision you make. Is this the guideline you would want your child to use when making decisions?
  2. Also, everything I've read suggests that a lot more parents co-sleep with their kids as least part of the time than we all think. For some reason, our culture is a bit of an outlier and doesn't totally accept co-sleeping. I don't think it's for very good reasons.

Final Thoughts - Sleep Should Be a Happy Thing!

No matter what arrangement works well for your family, I think it's easy to forget with all the advice out there about how to get your baby to sleep a few basic truths:

  • People have been sleeping for years! In fact, as long as people have been around, they have slept! Trust your instincts about how to sleep and how to help your baby sleep.
  • Knowledge is power! Cheesy but true. Whatever you are doing with your baby, whether driving them in a car every day, or sleeping with them in your bed, it's always best to gain as much knowledge as possible about how to keep them safe.
  • Let's all respect each other! I have tried very hard to communicate my belief that everyone should figure out what works for their family. My complaints are against people who use false or incomplete information to affect others' decisions - not against any specific practice.

I would love to hear others' thoughts on this important topic if you want to share in the comments below...


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    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 5 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Angela - Thank you so much for your comment! After four babies, you must really have learned a lot about following your instincts! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 5 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      So true I had four babies and had to use what worked for us and follow my own instincts!

    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 5 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      cat on a soapbox - Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! At least in my experience, co-sleeping can be so helpful to be able to breastfeed and still get a good night's sleep!

    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

      I agree with you and feel the same way about breast feeding. It comes down to what works best for you and your family.

    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 5 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Millionare Tips - Thank you so much for the comments! I have had a very similar experience - often the people I expected would be against co-sleeping did it for years, and sometimes it's also been the other way around. Such a good reminder not to make assumptions. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experience.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 5 years ago from USA

      Wow, I didn't know that there were public service announcements on not sleeping with your children. You would think they would be able to find better uses for their money. When my daughter was young, I felt ashamed to let my daughter sleep on my bed with me(because of the million what-ifs), and I regret them. The funny thing is that the people I thought would make a big deal about it wound up co-sleeping with their children!

      You're right, it is everybody's personal decision, and they should do what is best under their own circumstances.