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Published December 17, 2012, 11:40 PM

Co-sleeping can make for a better night’s sleep, but can also be risky, experts say

FARGO – For Lisa Ellingson Simon of Fargo, co-sleeping was the solution to keeping her sanity after her daughter was born, she said.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

The Great Mom Debate

The Great Mom Debate is an occasional series on parenting topics, addressing issues women often debate socially and within themselves. If you have an idea for our Great Mom Debate or if you would like to participate in future topics, please contact Forum reporter Tracy Frank at tfrank@forumcomm.com. ONLINE: Join in the conversation online at http://tracyfrank.areavoices.com.

FARGO – For Lisa Ellingson Simon of Fargo, co-sleeping was the solution to keeping her sanity after her daughter was born, she said.

Her baby woke frequently to nurse and screamed whenever Ellingson Simon tried to put her in her crib.

“Families around the world co-sleep, yet American culture seems to look down on the practice,” she said. “My advice to other parents? Do what works best for your family.”

Co-sleeping, or parents sleeping with their children, can be a controversial issue. Those in favor of it say it helps everyone sleep better and it forms a strong bond between parents and their children. Those opposed say children need to learn independence and the practice isn’t safe.

Parent Laura Graves of Fargo said she feels it’s important to encourage children to sleep alone, especially from an early age.

“If they have problems sleeping I think it’s OK to wait with them and comfort them until they fall asleep, but I don’t think it is acceptable to have children sleep in the same bed as the parent for the entire night,” she said. “If they learn at an early age to help themselves, it will only encourage their ability to be more self-sufficient as they grow.”

Bobbi Paper, injury prevention coordinator at Sanford Children’s Hospital in Fargo, said co-sleeping with an infant age 1 and under is not recommended because the baby could suffocate by blankets and pillows, becoming trapped between the mattress and headboard or nightstand, or their parents could roll over onto them,

“When you’re looking at the con, the one con with co-sleeping is the possibility of death,” she said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission says that from 1990 to 1997, 515 deaths were attributed to parents rolling on top of their baby, Paper said.

While motor vehicle crash death rates, bike crash fatalities and poisoning are all going down as causes of death in infants, the one injury prevention issue that is rising is suffocation, Paper said.

“The research is being done on that, and what it’s being attributed to is the increase in co-sleeping,” Paper said.

Co-sleeping is largely a product of our society. In today’s world of both parents working, having multiple children in the family is just plain exhausting, Paper said. Parents need a good night’s sleep and take their baby into bed to get it, she said.

“We’re not saying parents are intentionally harming babies,” she said. “What’s happening is we have no control over our bodies when we sleep, especially when we’re exhausted.”

Kelly Olson, director of The Village Family Service Center’s Moorhead office, said while safety is a big factor, some children have a hard time getting to sleep on their own and need their parents to be able to sleep. Some children with autism cannot get to sleep on their own, she said.

“Parents have a tough enough job the way it is, and there are times when you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do to survive,” Olson said.

Some people who practice attachment parenting see co-sleeping as a way to be completely engaged with their child at all times, she said.

Both Olson and Paper said there are ways parents can have the same benefits of co-sleeping without the dangers.

Playpens or basinets with three sides can be placed next to the parents’ bed. Room sharing, by putting a baby’s crib, basinet or playpen in the parents’ room, has also taken off over the last few years.

“Whether you are breastfeeding, whether you’re bottle feeding or whether you just want to have that closeness of baby right there so you can attend to baby when they need it, they’re right there, they’re just not in the same bed with you,” Paper said.

Ellingson Simon said an Arm’s Reach co-sleeping bassinet made co-sleeping with her infant easier. The bassinet is three-sided so the open side can be pulled next to the parents’ bed.

She started sleeping with her daughter when she was about 6 months old, Ellingson Simon said.

She’d had a C-section and had a terrible time trying to breastfeed while recovering from her surgery, she said.

“Olivia would sleep less than an hour at a time, then wake and want to eat. Every time I would try to put her down to sleep in her fancy cherry crib, she would scream bloody murder,” Ellingson Simon said.

She tried the Ferber method of sleep training for one night, but couldn’t bear to listen to her daughter scream, she said.

The Ferber method involves teaching the baby to soothe herself to sleep by following a bedtime routine and then putting her to bed awake and leaving her, even if she cries, for gradually longer periods of time, according to babycenter.com. Pediatrician Richard Ferber wrote about it in his book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.”

When Ellingson Simon tried co-sleeping with her daughter, they both woke the next morning, refreshed after six hours of sleep, she said.

“I tried parenting book after parenting book, but it wasn’t until I read Dr. William Sears’ ‘The Baby Sleep Book’ that I realized that I found the solution for my own sanity – co-sleeping, part of Sears’ attachment parenting philosophy,” Ellingson Simon said.

When Olivia was 2½ and Ellingson Simon’s son, Jack, was born, Olivia got a big-girl bed and Jack slept with Ellingson Simon, she said.

“The baby and I slept in sync,” she said. “He would stir, which would wake me up enough to nurse him, then we both fell back asleep for a few hours.”

When he was about a year old, Ellingson Simon tried to put Jack in a crib in his own room. He climbed out of it in the middle of the night, and was snuggled up next to her when she woke in the morning.

“We didn’t try that again,” she said.

Eventually, Ellingson Simon’s children started willingly sleeping in their own beds, she said.

“Both my children have been in their own beds since age 3 and are incredibly independent, self-reliant and socially outgoing beings who still love to snuggle up with a blanket on Friday movie nights,” Ellingson Simon said.

But co-sleeping isn’t for everyone.

Graves is stepmom to a 5-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl.

When she and her husband first started living in their apartment, it was difficult to get the kids to sleep in their own beds because it was a strange place, Graves said.

“They would each wake up throughout the night and try and come into our bed,” she said. “My husband and I have agreed that consistency is the best method for us as parents. Each time they have tried to come to our bed, we carry them back to their bed and wait with them until they fall asleep again. I believe it’s important to encourage this because it teaches them to be aware of their emotions and learn to help themselves.”

They have found that rewarding them for good behavior helps the kids make it through the night, Graves said.

For children who wake up in the middle of the night and want to sleep with their parents, Olson said it’s important for parents to know how they feel about letting the child sleep with them ahead of time so they’re not making that decision at 3 a.m. and can have a consistent response.

“It’s so hard for parents,” Olson said. “We’re told we’re supposed to do this, we’re supposed to do that. It’s hard enough to be a parent nowadays because we have so much different information coming at us.”

A lot of children will naturally decide when they’re too old to sleep with their parents, Olson said. But there also comes a time when children will have to learn to fall asleep on their own, she said.

“Once they go to school, they’re going to be expected to manage their own emotions and calm themselves down without somebody being there to facilitate that,” Olson said, adding that falling asleep is a way people manage their emotions and calm themselves every day.

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