The Co-Sleeping Campaign That Backfired Completely

CoSleeping Campaign Backfired

To co-sleep, or not to co-sleep…that’s a hot, debatable topic these days! Of course, we work with families all over the world, who sleep in a variety of arrangements, so we pass no judgment. We make it our priority to respect every parent’s personal philosophies and goals.

But we also make it a priority to emphasize the importance of safe sleep practices. And let’s face it, when it comes to co-sleeping, there is quite a debate out there about whether or not it’s a safe way to sleep.

The Overlooked Facts About Co-Sleeping

There’s a lot we could say about safe co-sleeping, but we’ve already made those points in this article, Is Co-Sleeping Dangerous?

But here’s the thing – we have learned a lot about how and why parents co-sleep in the years since the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its warnings about the dangers of bed-sharing in 2011. The AAP went to great lengths then to issue warnings about the dangers of co-sleeping…and some states (New York and Wisconsin, for example) have taken up the call by creating their own anti-co-sleeping campaigns. The goal was to staunch the rising tide of infant deaths related to bed-sharing, and some of the tactics used in this anti-co-sleeping campaign were downright disturbing (like this image of baby sleeping next to a meat cleaver).

But it’s looking more and more like these campaigns have not only failed to make a meaningful difference in co-sleeping rates — it’s looking more and more like they have backfiredand it’s easy to see why.

For one, most of these campaigns strongly emphasize the dangers of sharing a bed with your baby – but really, sharing a bed is far, far less dangerous than parents sharing a couch with their babies, or a recliner. As Dr. Melissa Bartick shared in a recent article with WBUR, in Boston,

“As states have adopted the AAP 2011 recommendations, the advice to never sleep with your baby has backfired in the worst possible way. Rather than preventing deaths, this advice is probably even increasing deaths. Included in 2009 study that the AAP even cited in its statement for other conclusions, parents of two SIDS babies who slept with their infant on a sofa did so because they had been advised against bringing their infants into bed but had not realized the dangers of sleeping on a sofa. In fact, deaths from SIDS in parental beds has halved in the UK from 1984-2004, but there has been a rise of deaths from cosleeping on sofas.”

And it’s becoming clearer and clearer that not all co-sleeping is equal. An attachment parent who is committed to co-sleeping, and who is incredibly intentional about her family’s sleeping arrangements, is not at all the same as a parent who simply collapses on the sofa with baby on her chest, out of sheer exhaustion. So to treat ALL co-sleeping as dangerous is really unfair; we know that intentional co-sleeping, done safely and carefully, is actually quite safe indeed.

And finally (and perhaps most importantly), here’s what is most revealing about how far short these anti co-sleeping campaigns have fallen: the evidence suggests that in spite of the AAP’s best efforts, over 40% of mothers report that they frequently or always share a sleep space with their child (and it’s likely the co-sleeping stats are grossly underestimated). The scare tactics simply aren’t working.

So what does this suggest? To us, it suggests that what we don’t need is a fear-based campaign designed to terrify mothers into not co-sleeping…instead, what we need is a comprehensive system to educate mothers about how to co-sleep safely and with intention, if they do choose to occasionally or frequently (or even always) share a sleeping space with their babies.

In some ways, this is similar to the sex education that many teenagers receive in school. (Okay, not totally similar, but stick with me here!) There is lots of evidence that abstinence-based sex ed, on its own, is not nearly as effective as programs that teach both the value of abstinence AND safe-sex practices. You simply can’t terrify or persuade teenagers into not having sex, and hope that works. It doesn’t.

Similarly, you can’t terrify moms into not co-sleeping – the evidence suggests that they will anyway. So what if, instead, we focused on educating moms about what safe co-sleeping practices look like?

The fact is, as Dr. James McKenna points out, co-sleeping has been around since the dawn of time. We will never eradicate it, and campaigns that are designed to dissuade parents from sharing a sleep space with their children are bound to fail – whereas campaigns designed to educate and inform can only succeed.

How To Co-Sleep Safely

With all this talk about how to co-sleep safely, you may be wondering, “How exactly DO I co-sleep safely, anyway?” Glad you asked! These resources are great ones, if you want to educate yourself about safe co-sleeping practices:

In the end, what we want to leave you with is this: there is no “right” or “wrong” sleeping arrangement for you and your baby, provided your sleeping arrangements are safe. Safe bed-sharing, safe room-sharing, safe crib-sleeping…it can all work! And your baby can sleep well, and peacefully, in any sleeping arrangement. The Baby Sleep Site® team is 100% committed to respecting your parenting goals, and your family’s sleeping arrangements, and we will work with you to improve your child’s sleep no matter what those arrangements look like. We will never pressure you to change you sleeping set-up; instead, we will work within the parameters you give us, and will respect them every step of the way.

Browse our list of consultation package options here.

What are your thoughts on co-sleeping? Any co-sleeping stories or tips to share?


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14 thoughts on “The Co-Sleeping Campaign That Backfired Completely”

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for this article! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like a terrible mother because a Doctor has told me not to co-sleep. ( I was scolded for co-sleeping at the hospital with my newborn).

    I co-slept with my 1st daughter until we were already to transition her to her own bed. What we did was co-sleep until she was 5 months old, then we part time co-slept until she was 11 months old. By then she gave up her overnight feed and has slept on her own bed ever since. (Except for times she is sick). I am so glad I did a gradual transition and I plan to do the same with my 2nd daughter.

    I’ve always been safe about it and I wish more emphasis was given to that, than to scaring parents, or even worse, make them feel bad for even thinking about co-sleeping. Not only is co-sleeping a part of my culture, but it is something I should have the choice in doing and not feel bad about it. I am hoping that in our future, the stigma of co-sleeping goes away, and when babies get hurt due to it, they blame it on the actual cause, for example the provider being under the influence of drugs, and not just the practice of co-sleeping.

    • @Jessica, thanks for sharing your experience with us! Congrats on baby #2 that sounds like she’s coming soon (or perhaps already here?). 🙂

  2. So nice to read an American source that is not condemning co sleeping. Same as Hilde above, I am a first time Norwegian mom. I would say that safe cosleeping is even encouraged over here, we were sent home from the hospital with a neat folder explains safe co sleeping principles. We bought one of those side car beds that is attached to our bed, mattresses the same height. Our LO will start the night in her own little side car, and then she will be transferred over to my bed upon first waking up for her first feed. She demanded quite a lot from us when she was a newborn, and doing this saved both of our sleep, I was even able to fall asleep with her nursing making my waking up to attach her significantly less impacting my own sleep. Now she’s 4,5 months old and still starts the night in her side car at 7 PM and doesn’t wake to feed until ca 6 AM the following day, so I too can attest to the fact that co sleeping does not necessitate frequent night wakings demanding to feed.

    • @Kari Amalie, Thank you so much for your comment and sharing your co-sleeping experience with us! I am so glad your daughter is doing so well. Thank you for using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource for sleep!

  3. Just to clarify: Bed-sharing worked for us…until it didn’t. By about a year old, our daughter was starting to get less restful sleep in bed with us, and our sleep was also suffering as a result. By 14 months, we finally got help from the Baby Sleep Site to transition to a crib, and as daunting as it was, we did it!

    Given our co-sleeping experience, I’ve become a big advocate of informing parents of their options and how to be safe no matter what choice they take. My top advice (for anyone who finds it helpful) is to educate yourself, go with whatever works for your family (knowing that it may change over time), and not to worry about what others are doing.

    Sometimes I’m sad that bed-sharing didn’t work long-term for us. It would be so nice to snuggle occasionally with her at night, but our few attempts at it (usually when she was sick and in need of extra comfort) have resulted in making exhausted disasters of all of us by morning.

    Fun follow-on story: After she moved to a crib, we continued to room share, debating when/whether to move her to her own room. Then, at about 2 years old, she TOLD us she was moving to her own room, and started pushing her crib (it’s light-weight) down the hallway. That was it. Sometimes it’s best to let the kid take the lead. 😉

    • @ Anna – I love your advice 🙂 And I know other moms reading this will, too – thanks for sharing!

  4. I’m a first-time mum that intended to of course let the baby sleep in a crib. I didn’t know of any other options until a midwife at the hospital said that if I wanted, I could bring the baby into my bed. I should just make sure she didn’t overheat.

    Now, policy in Norwegian hospitals is to room-in with the babies anyway, but I took my baby into my hospital bed and never looked back. My little girl is now 9 months old, still sleeping with me. I have never felt exhausted, despite even growth spurts and teething which at its worst woke me up every hour. Actually, I’m looking forward to nights, because I can snuggle with my daugther.

    What about my husband, you say? Well, we do have some grown-up action pretty often I’d say, but just not in the marital bed after lights out 😉 I might even say that I think the frequency is quite large because I am more rested. (A lot of people thinks co-sleeping as bed-sharing equals zero sexlife, I just wanted to debunk that myth.)

    Oh, and as for debunking myths: No, my baby does not wake up every second hour to breastfeed despite the fact that the goods are very available. She has, on her own, increased her sleep stretches, the longest now being 6 hours from midnight most nights. This, of course, is not valid for all babies this age, but point is that bed-sharing does not imply that baby will breastfeed all night.

    It doesn’t suit everyone, but it’s a valid option!

    • @ Hilde – love your comment! Thanks for debunking that myth for us 😉 So glad to hear that bed-sharing has been a great choice for you and your family!

  5. James McKenna’s advice about co-sleeping is wonderful: sane, thorough, and research-based. We also thought we would room-share only, never bed-share. Amazing how reality changes our perspective on things. 😉 I am ever grateful that I read his book before falling into bed-sharing with the baby. We did everything we could for safety, and felt less guilty about it, despite a very unsupportive pediatrician. (It’s never a good sign when you resort to lying to the doctor because you just don’t want to discuss it again. Our decision was final, for the meantime, and no guilt was going to change that; we would just keep our decision and feel more awful about it. Countless parents I have spoken to have expressed amazement that we even ONCE told him that we slept with the kid: They just refused to bring their own bed-sharing up at all with the doc. Interesting that our own pediatrician was under the impression that we were a rare event, eh?)

    While I was pregnant, my husband and I took a child safety course offered in the evening through our hospital. When the instructor came to the part about sleep, she talked about “back to sleep” and then gave the official recommendation about co-sleeping (this was 2012, so the official line was essentially “bed-share if you want to kill you child”). After the official spiel, the teacher paused, looked at all of us staring back at her, and gave an “off the record” speech, with the take-home message: (1) Many of you will co-sleep no matter what I say and (2) You can maximize safety in this circumstance. She then wrote James McKenna’s name on the board and recommended his book, Sleeping with Your Baby. (Suddenly everyone was taking notes…) Then she erased it, and with an air of “what happens in the classroom stays in the classroom” moved on with her presentation.

    It is my hope that with the new data on this topic, the official curriculum (and doctors’ advice) will fall more in line with the “underground” instruction that we received from this amazing teacher.

    • @ Anna – wow…what a story! How funny that your child safety instructor had to be so covert about discussing bed-sharing, but I guess I can understand that, given the times in which we live. But glad to hear that cosleeping has been a real solution for you, and that you’ve been able to feel confident and good about your choice – way to go!

      thanks for commenting, Anna! 🙂

  6. I totally agree that the focus needs to be on educating moms about safe bed sharing. When my daughter was an infant she wouldn’t sleep more than 45-90 minutes in her crib. I was sleep deprived and miserable. But I was terrified of bringing her to bed. And because I was so exhausted there were several occasions where I fell asleep with her in my arms on the sofa. I was so lucky that nothing tragic happened. When she was four months I couldn’t take it anymore so I researched how to bring her to bed safely. That first night she slept four hours straight, woke to nurse for a few minutes then went back to sleep for another four hours. Best decision I ever made. I was finally getting the rest I needed.

    • @ Bridgette – thanks so much for sharing your opinion with us! So glad to hear that safe co-sleeping has been a real sleep solution for you. It’s not for everyone, but it is a life-saver for some families! 🙂

  7. I as many other mums out there started out with full intention of getting my little one to sleep in his own bed.
    However soon after birth colics kicked in and we ended up sleeping in all sort of places (always done taking safety into account)..
    At just over two months the little monkey ended up permanently in our bed n at 31months still is…

    I m a very light sleeper and always taken my child safety as a priority. But had so many negative comments from health advisors that scared me n made me feel like a bad mum…

    Until one day talking to my child’s GP she reassured me that if I was being careful there was nothing wrong with cosleeping if it worked for us!

    I felt so much better after that!

    I believe that more information and support should be given to parents re baby sleep!

    Thanks for all the info and really wish I had found you guys sooner!

    • @ irene – Thanks so much for sharing your story! I think a lot of moms end up doing just what you have done…and it’s high time we stopped making them feel so terrified!

      Thanks for commenting, irene – glad you’ve found us and are adding your voice to our community. 🙂

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