Even as children's health experts debate the merits and risks of letting infants sleep with adults, more parents than ever are sharing a bed with a baby less than a year old.
The percentage of babies sleeping in an adult bed rose from 5.5% in 1993 to 12.8% in 2000, according to the National Infant Sleep Position Study, the first to look at the frequency of bed-sharing nationwide.
A telephone survey of 8,543 adults who cared for babies at night found that nearly half of the infants spent at least some nights in the previous two weeks sleeping in an adult bed. African American babies were four times more likely and Asian American babies three times more likely to share a bed with an adult than were white babies, according to the study reported in the January Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
A second study in the same issue found that among predominantly poor, inner-city mothers in Washington, D.C., almost 50% reported that their infants usually shared a bed with them or another adult in the first year. The babies were most likely to share a bed if their mothers were single or if the women had moved at least once since giving birth. Of the 369 mothers interviewed, 82% were African American, 73% were unmarried and 68% lived below the federal poverty line. Both studies were federally funded. "These papers are of particular interest because they show this is an increasing practice, particularly among populations that are also at risk for SIDS," said Dr. John Kattwinkel, head of neonatology at the University of Virginia and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics task force on infant sleep position and sudden infant death syndrome.
The academy has not taken a position on bed sharing because there are strong arguments for and against the practice, he said.
Proponents say babies naturally are meant to stay close to their mothers. Sharing a bed, they say, fosters bonding, breastfeeding and may protect babies from SIDS.
Opponents argue that babies who sleep in an adult bed are prone to suffocation in soft bedding or pillows, and can become trapped between the bed and a wall, headboard or footboard. Furthermore, they cite studies that have found an increased number of SIDS cases when the mother smokes, drinks, becomes overly tired or covers the infant with a duvet or heavy bedding.
Therefore, Kattwinkel said, the academy has cautioned parents to take precautions if they share a bed with an infant. They should make sure other adults or children are not in the bed and avoid using any drugs or alcohol that could impair their ability to be alert to the baby's needs. In addition, mothers who breastfeed in bed should be especially careful about the baby's position and proximity to objects that could cause suffocation.