Co-sleeping is Safer Than Cribs Says SIDS Researcher James McKenna

Image © Flickr user tamakisono

Co-sleeping may be a controversial topic among the general population, but according to a recent Inhabitots co-sleeping poll, the vast majority of our readers feel that co-sleeping is safe and healthy. Dr. James McKenna, a well-known Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) researcher agrees that co-sleeping is safer than crib sleeping. McKenna has spent 30 years researching babies and sleep, along with correlated issues, such as breastfeeding and SIDS. McKenna notes that co-sleeping (the act of sleeping in the same room as a child) and bed-sharing (the act of sharing a bed with a child) do hold some major benefits for both mother and child, including a possible reduced risk of SIDS.

Image © Flickr user Spigoo

McKenna notes the following co-sleeping and bed-sharing benefits in many of his research papers:

  • Reduced SIDS rate: An international childcare survey by the SIDS Global Task Force shows that cultures practicing the highest co-sleeping and bed-sharing rates also experience the lowest SIDS rates. Japan is a good example. In Japan co-sleeping and breastfeeding are both deeply ingrained cultural norms and Japan has the lowest rates of SIDS related deaths in the world.
  • Breastfeeding success: Bed-sharing can make breastfeeding easier to manage and may double breastfeeding sessions, while still allowing mamas and babies to get more sleep. Also, research shows that the easier breastfeeding is, the longer a mother will breastfeed. Of course the longer a mother breastfeeds the more benefits health-wise. For instance, the baby gets more important antibodies and nutrients, while mothers experience reduced breast cancer risks.
  • Quicker and more efficient baby care: The close proximity of baby and parent during co-sleeping allows the baby’s needs to be better, and more quickly met. For example, if a baby is choking, struggling to breathe or somehow covers his head with blankets, a co-sleeping arrangement alerts the parent to these issues. Crib sleeping, in another room, keeps the baby somewhat removed from immediate care.
  • Bonding success: For parents who work outside of the home, co-sleeping can allow for extra baby-parent interaction and is a great way to spend time together and grow the family relationship.

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12 Responses to “Co-sleeping is Safer Than Cribs Says SIDS Researcher James McKenna”

  1. mdwyer says:

    With all due respect, Dr. McKenna is an anthropologist and not a SIDS researcher. His studies take place in a controlled sleep lab under idyllic, monitored conditions.

    The reality is that of the more than 4,500 SUID in the U.S. as many as 80-90 percent happen as a result of bed sharing, cluttered cribs or other unsafe conditions. Obtaining concrete stats is a challenge for two reasons: First there is not national data repository and second there are still significant inconsistencies in investigation and reporting deaths by MEs/Coroners. Even among the SIDS diagnoses, many reference unsafe sleep conditions as a possible contributing factor. But the researchers and experts in the field are comfortable with the wording of “as many as 80-90 percent” and “as many as 4,000 deaths each year” may be attributed to unsafe sleep practices, primarily the adult bed. The stats very from state to state and region to region.

    Another reality, again as a result of Child Death Review reports: It is a very rare occurrence for a baby to die in while sleeping in a crib that meets current safety standards, on a firm mattress that fits snugly and is covered by only a sheet. This is the standard we must reach if we are to save as many lives as possible.

    Michael Dwyer
    Executive Director
    Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association

  2. CeeInJax says:

    For 56 years, my mother has been telling me always to consider the source, and I’ve passed that wisdom on to my children. One need only consider the title below Mr. Dwyer’s name to understand why he took the time to post his comment. Executive Director of Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association? You mean like the folks who make CRIBS? Ah. I’m sure any comment from someone whose wallet is going to be hit hard by parents who don’t buy cribs can be counted on to be totally unbiased when it comes to bed-sharing.

    Cecilia Mitchell Miller
    Bed-sharing Mom and Grandmother
    Owner, Birth Your Way Jax Doula Services and Childbirth Education

  3. angmck says:

    I have to agree with Mr. Dwyer. All true research(by ACTUAL SIDS researchers) shows that the safest place for a child is in a crib, with nothing on the bed except a firm mattress and sheet. I am appalled by people who automatically assume someone is evil because of the company they work for. Not every corporation is out to get you Cecilia! The JPMA is on your side, not against it. I’m not saying that bed sharing can’t be safe, if practiced correctly I truly believe it can be every bit as safe as the safest crib, but the truth is, it’s not always practiced safely, and even to the parents who have healthy safe children today, you simply don’t know if there were days you were so tired you could have smothered your child in bed, but luckily did not. Ultimately, I agree that children should be in the room with you for at least the first 3 months, but being a bedsharing parent by no means makes you any better or your children better off than someone who switches to a crib as the child gets older.

  4. jessicax23 says:

    “Actual SIDS researchers”? In your whimsical imagination there a secret handshake for that?! Sorry, folks, but if you open one of them there fancy books on science, you will find that anthropology is a research field, and medical anthropology is… wait for it… a field in which degreed professionals research medical issues! This means that Dr. McKenna is a SIDS researcher, and you are not. His scientifically sound research has shown what your corporate lobbying wishes it hasn’t. That doesn’t make it any less valid. If you trust research funded by the industry, and distrust research conducted by independent scientists, then you have exactly zero credibility in the discussion, and for very good reason.

    Car seats are also not always utilized safely, but you don’t see anyone arguing against their use. The only reason there is backlash against the reality that co-sleeping PROPERLY is the safest is because there isn’t a product to be sold based on that reality. Stop drinking the corporate Kool-Aid and take your fingers out of your ears when the real scientists like Dr. McKenna give you information. Be a big girl or boy, break out your Charlie Brown calculator, and add 2 and 2 together. “Cui bono?” is your friend.

  5. emilymav says:

    I work in a pediatric emergency department and over the last three years I have witnessed two crib deaths (one was caused by a king size pillow being placed in the crib with the infant and the other was true SIDs) and at least 10 co-sleeping deaths(we call them Suffocation Infant Death, not to be confused with SIDs). The worst sound I have ever heard is the heartbreaking scream and wailing of a mother that was just told that her baby is dead as a result of accidental suffocation. I can only speak for myself but when I have my baby I will not be co-sleeping.

  6. lauraj says:

    I don’t understand why this is controversial. The evidence has been there for HUNDREDS of years. North America is the only place where people put their babies in cribs in other rooms, and the place where SIDS rates are sky high. In most other countries in the world, it is completely normal and natural for Moms to sleep with their babies, and SIDS is practically NON EXISTENT! Try Co sleeping, you won’t have any sleepless nights. The baby knows you are beside them, where you are supposed to be, and sleeps normally, waking only to breastfeed occasionally and goes back to sleep. Both my girls slept through the night from birth. Both slept beside me in my bed. The development of cribs was purely for consumerist reasons, and nothing else. Babies belong with their mothers, like all other mammals. SIDS is a self protection mechanism of an infant, who, when abandoned, like all other animals, cannot survive. Imagine being in a womb within your mother for 9 months, then being born and literally dumped into another room with only person that you depend on disappearing all night long> It’s absurd. Wake up people.

  7. CeeinJax says:

    Sorry, angmck, but I don’t think my skepticism is paranoia when the “information” I’m reading comes from someone who benefits directly from the sale of cribs and who himself admits that the data he is quoting is fraught with inconsistencies and less than reliable reporting issues.

    On one thing, we certainly do agree. Many infant deaths can be at least partially attributed to “unsafe sleep conditions”. As an avowed bed-sharing advocate, I always recommend that parents research suggestions for how to create a safe sleep space for the whole family. I particularly prefer the protocol put forth by The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine:

    The vast majority of families admit that their young children spend at least some part of the night in the parents’ bed either every night or on a regular basis. It seems really absurd to me, then, that so much time, energy and money is spent admonishing parents to put their babies in cribs instead of educating families on how to sleep together safely.

    If we’re talking about SIDS research, it has to be noted that breastfeeding is a huge factor in reducing the risk of SIDS. It also should be noted that breastfeeding is a lot more likely to succeed if the baby has free access to the breast throughout the night, and no one can deny that that is more likely to occur if the mother and baby dyad are sharing the same bed. Therefore, it seems only logical to educate mothers on the ways to create a safe sleep space where everyone gets the best sleep possible, safely, and breastfeeding is most easily accomplished.

  8. ceeinjax says:

    Sorry, angmck, but I don’t think it’s paranoid to be skeptical of “information” on this topic coming from someone who stands to benefit directly from the sale of cribs. I also don’t think it’s paranoid to be skeptical of breastfeeding advice that comes from formula companies.

    Mr. Dwyer himself admits that the statistics he cites are fairly unreliable, although he doesn’t use that adjective. There are problems with reporting, inconsistencies, no standards for classification of death or the contributing factors thereof. And there is way too much confusion between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Suffocation Infant Death, as emilymav notes. SIDS is a diagnosis of exclusion… meaning that it ends up being the diagnosis when every other possible cause of death has been excluded. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that some deaths are attributed to SIDS that should have been attributed to some other condition or illness that just was not discovered in routine examination including autopsy. There is NO EVIDENCE that bed-sharing is a factor in SIDS risk. Please… let’s not confuse the two. IMO, the anti-bed-sharing folks like to cite SIDS risk because it strikes fear in the hearts of every parent of a small child. That is irreponsible and unethical. And confusing.

    The fact is that bed-sharing is a factor in some suffocation deaths. That is why most bed-sharing advocates emphasize the need to educate parents on creating a safe sleep space for the whole family, including the infant who needs to be near its mother. The vast majority of families report that their small children spend at least some part of the night in the parents’ bed, either every night or farily frequently. It makes sense, then, to spend more time, energy and money educating parents about creating a safe sleep environment than merely admonishing them to isolate their babies in a crib somewhere. The “Just Say No” campaign didn’t work to reduce drug use, and it won’t work to eliminate the natural instinct that mothers and babies have to sleep near each other. I particularly like The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine’s protocol:

    There is AMPLE evidence that breastfeeding significan’t reduces the risk of SIDS. There is also vast research to support the assertion that breastfeeding is more likely to succeed if the baby is given free access to the breast all day and all night. We know the very best way to accomplish that is to have the mother and baby sleeping in close proximity to each other. Mothers and babies have been doing so since the beginning of time… and still do in thousands of homes all over the planet, as lauraj pointed out. The key, IMO, is to teach mothers how to sleep safely with their babies so all of this can be accomplished.

    Finally, much has been made of sleep surfaces here while an equally important factor is WHO the infant is sleeping with and what condition that person is in. Babies should sleep next to mother only. No one in the bed with the baby should be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sleeping with a smoker increases the baby’s risk (so does LIVING with a smoker). Other children should not be in the same bed… or should be separated from the baby by the mother’s body at the very least. Pets should not be in the same bed with the baby. The list goes on… do the research and use some common sense!

    There is a reason why it feels so natural for mothers to bring their babies into their beds… because IT IS.

  9. justathought says:

    although I am not able to verify my source, I have once heard that the female olfactory senses helps the brain notice where the baby is and makes it unlikely for the mother to ever accidentally roll over on the child. This bit leaves me thinking that biologically speaking, then, that it must be natural to have the baby near mother during sleep. At the same time, I am not surprised to hear that there may have been some deaths occuring from co-sleeping because todays beds are usually so fluffy with large pillows and comforters which could create all kinds of unsafe spots for the baby to be in. Although I am an advocate of co-sleeping in the same room, I do hope that anyone that decides to share the bed, will practice become educated on safety rules, like keeping the pillows away from the baby and keeping the comforter away from the baby’s head. there are little side beds you can place next to your bed that also work just as well, even if you are breastfeeding.

  10. dawn papple says:

    Michael Dwyer, with all due respect to you, I looked up this man’s education. He holds a doctorate in biological anthropology and has worked for many years as a well respected SIDS researcher. Last I checked there was not a doctorate in “SIDS Research” but rather that is merely something someone does. Are you claiming he actually did not work with a team at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, Department of Neurology pioneering the first studies of the physiology and behavior of mothers and infant sleeping together and apart, using physiological and behavioral recording devices?

    Perhaps you feel that as part of a manufacturing association selling juvenile products the research available to you has been unbiased? After all, there’s no benefit to the sale of any products if a mother and child don’t need any fancyschmancy products now is there?

    I’d like to point out this part of his biography:

    Professor McKenna has published over 139 refereed scientific articles in diverse medical and anthropological journals on co-sleeping, breastfeeding, evolutionary medicine and SIDS, and both here and abroad he gives over 20 lectures especially to pediatric groups and parents. Here in the United States he remains one of the primary spokesperson to the media on issues pertaining to sleeping arrangements, nighttime breast feeding and SIDS prevention.

    I’d say he’s FAR more qualified than you are to be giving us advice.

  11. Samm13456 says:

    This is very unfortunate that people are not able to read deeper into this article. Co-sleeping may or may not be beneficial, but unfortunately this article does not relay any concrete data to the fact. If one is studying subjects in a controlled environment, they cannot make concrete assessments due to the many variables that operate outside of the lab. Does this mean we stop doing science? No, but it does mean that we should be skeptics and evaluate findings, no matter what credentials are given. I have no vested interest in this matter, except to say that if a conclusion is going to be drawn that leads you to change your opinion, there should be data and explanations that account for outside variables. This article does not do any of these things, and therefor I urge you if you’re thinking about co-sleeping, don’t use this article for justification. Find something meaningful. If not for you, do it for your future child, Who’s life could possibly be at risk. Wouldn’t you rather be safe then sorry? I know if my childs life were at stake, I’d do a lot more then read one article about one man who did lab studies in controlled environments. Let’s think people!

  12. Julie Andreae says:

    I find it appalling that Mr. Dwyer would have an onion on “safe
    sleep” practices. After all it is the JPMA that stands behind the juvenile bedding manufactures and their sale of unsafe bedding; namely bumper pads. If you missed the Good Morning America episode please check it out;

    As an executive of a company that manufactures a line of Breathable Crib Mattress ( I also find it equally disturbing that safe sleep organizations are turning a blind eye to scientifically tested products that are rated by CPSC labs as “SIGNIFICANTLY low risk hazards” vs. the AAPs recommendation of a firm crib mattress with a tight fitting sheet rated as a “known low risk hazard.” I personally know the horror of losing a loved one to SIDS. I am a professional whom has dedicated my life to developing a safer crib mattress for babies. However, safe sleep organizations want to push their simple message of; Alone, on Back, and in a Crib. I am guessing either these individuals have not had children, or they are afraid of losing funding if safer alternatives are introduced. What about when a baby rolls. Also, there are tolerances in crib sizes and mattress heights. The AAP recommends a “firm crib mattress with a tight fitting sheet.” So get real, crib mattress manufacturers are not manufacturing the sheets, so now you have millions of sheets on the market that can become loose posing a strangulation and suffocation risk (prime example: ) Not to mention mattress protectors. Moms are using mattress pads on their firm mattresses making them prime CO2 traps.

    We have developed a crib mattress that uses no sheets, bumper pads, or mattress pad….the entire sleep surface is machine washable. There is no fiber fill and the sleep surface is completely air permeable to the point where a baby can breathe normally (if they roll over and) are face down. In short, we have removed all the potential risk hazards that conventional crib mattresses pose. However we have been “black listed” from attending the Third National Cribs for Kids® Conference: The ABCs of Infant Safe Sleep. Wake up safe sleep promoters and stop worrying about losing your program funding and put the safety of babies first.

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