Occasionally, there are articles in the press reporting the tragic death of a baby in bed or on a sofa. These are rarely reported well and can result in demonising parents for co-sleeping and providing an extra level of worry for new parents.

I have been a parent since 2001 and I have worked with expectant and new parents since 2002 – co-sleeping is still a taboo subject, something to be hidden, to feel guilt and shame about. There is more good information and evidence about co-sleeping, largely thanks to the Baby Sleep Info Source (BASIS) but the fears and the secrecy are still there.

I passionately believe that we need to be having more honest conversations about co-sleeping, to normalise it, to make it a safe option and to consider it a safe option, which shouldn’t be as feared as it is. The consistent message for new parents is that babies should only ever be in a cot for sleep but this is not realistic or practical for many babies. This can lead to exhausted new parents, who may also believe that sitting in a chair or a sofa is better than bringing their baby into bed. And this worries me.

Surely we are ready for a more grown up discussion about where a baby sleeps, so that new parents know the options and know how to do it safely? Huge efforts are made to inform parents of safe sleeping for babies in a cot, this needs to extend to co-sleeping too. It is happening but it’s just not mainstream yet.

Blair, Sidebotham, Peach and Fleming (2014) found that when sofas, smoking and alcohol/drugs are removed, co-sleeping did not pose an increased risk and the research team stated: “Campaigns against bed-sharing unjustly stigmatises and condemns bed-sharing parents. It would be more effective and accurate to inform families as to how to bed-share safely, especially considering the positive relationship between bed-sharing and breastfeeding, and this study’s finding of a protective impact of bed-sharing beyond 3 months postpartum.

The latest newspaper report ran with the headline: “Baby died after new mum fell asleep while breastfeeding on her sofa.” It was a tragic accident – a tired new mum fell asleep on the sofa with her baby in her arms – and no cause of death was found so there is every chance the baby died from Sudden Infant Death. And why is this a news story? If a baby tragically died suddenly in his cot, would this also be newsworthy?

Feeding a baby on the sofa or in a chair when you are exhausted is riskier – it is not an even surface and it is possible to drop your baby if you fall asleep but feeding on the firm surface of a mattress, when you can consider the bedding and where the pillows are will be the safer option – so why aren’t we talking about this more? Especially when breastfeeding is designed to make mum sleepy so she can nap on the job rather than missing out on sleep.

The Baby Sleep Info Source website has pulled together the bed-sharing research which includes:

  • The biggest UK SIDS study (the CESDI study) which collected data between 1993 and 1996 found no increased SIDS risk with bed-sharing for non-smokers, or for babies aged more than 14 weeks.

  • The most recent UK study (the Southwest Infant Sleep Study (SWISS)) (conducted between 2003 and 2006) found that smoking, alcohol use and sofa-sharing explained the risk associated with SIDS deaths that happened when babies were co-sleeping with an adult.

As a mother and a practitioner, I reckon we need to start a different conversation about baby sleep to adjust our expectations on sleeping through the night and the stress that can cause; on safe co-sleeping in a bed rather than assuming the sofa or a chair is better; on the benefits of safe co-sleeping and on what the biological needs of babies can be in regards to sleep, food and night-time waking.

As part of extending this conversation beyond my antenatal and postnatal classes, you can expect more posts on baby sleep, safe sleeping and being a tired parent to feel informed and supported with options.

Janine – a specialist in pregnancy, birth and parent support