Where should babies sleep? A pediatrician responds.

A new study about the best place for babies to sleep — in their own rooms, or sharing a room with their parents — contradicts current AAP guidelines. But hopefully, in the long run, it will help more parents and babies get a better night’s sleep overall.

The most recent “safe sleep” guidelines were published in 2016. They stressed evidence-based recommendations for the safest way for babies to sleep: put down on their backs for every sleep, and on a firm, flat surface. Since bed sharing is has been shown to increase the risk of SIDS (especially in younger babies), it was also recommended that babies sleep on their own surface, designed for infants. And babies were supposed to sleep in their parents’ bedroom for at least the first six months of life, and ideally for 12 months.

It’s that last recommendation that I’ve never been completely happy about. The recommendation is based on three studies from the 1990s, all from Europe (where almost all babies slept in parents’ rooms, and, at the time, on their tummies.) In the aggregate, these studies showed fewer SIDS cases in babies sharing a room with their parents. But: there were very few SIDS cases to compare, and the one study that separated out babies by age at death showed that babies less than four months were safer in their own rooms (and less than four months is the peak time for SIDS).  So the evidence, then, wasn’t very strong — but it was the best evidence at the time, and the AAP decided the “share room with parents” idea deserved to be a recommendation.

I also think the Academy was swayed by room sharing’s making nursing easier, which is true. Breastfeeding is associated with a decreased SIDS risk.

The “ideally until 12 months” part of the recommendation was especially problematic. SIDS rates are very low past 6 months, making conclusions about the effect of sleeping location for older infants tenuous at best. 12 months is also peak time for separation anxiety, and a terrible time to first put your child alone to bed. The AAP decided to extend the “ideal time” in parents’ room to 12 months to be extra cautious, but I’m not sure they considered the overall burden this could place on many parents and children in terms of overall quality of life.

Now, a new study throws a wrench into this “same room” recommendation. Researchers tracked the sleep habits of babies who slept in their parents’ rooms, versus their own rooms, and the results aren’t terribly surprising. Room sharing at 4 and 9 months is associated with less sleep for babies, and fewer long stretches of sleep. Babies seem less able to “consolidate” or organize their sleep into longer stretches if they’re sharing a room with parents. And: room sharing makes it more likely that babies will end up in known unsafe sleep positions – like sleeping directly in their parents’ beds. But wasn’t room sharing supposed to be safer?

It’s a mixed message, but it reflects that the evidence for this room sharing recommendation has never been very strong. With this new study, parents should feel more comfortable, and less guilty, if they choose to put babies in their own rooms to sleep.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at the Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child and the creator of The Great Courses’ Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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