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Bed-sharing: has the public health message been oversimplified?

By Tessa of, Jun 3 2014 03:28PM

I went to a very interesting seminar at the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford today. The speaker was Professor Helen Ball and she was talking about bed-sharing with your baby. She has published lots of fascinating studies about this including from videos of how mothers and babies interact at the Sleep Lab and qualitative interviews with parents.

In the UK, 48% of parents have bed-shared by the time the baby is 3 months and 70-80% of breastfeeding mums have, even if they hadn't originally intended to. [NB. Bed-sharing doesn't mean that the baby has to be in the parental bed all night, part of the night counts too!] The National Institute of Clinical and Health Excellence is currently conducting a review of the evidence around bed-sharing and it is likely to be less straightforward than the health messages parents have been receiving in the last decade: that is, not to bed share. This is because the evidence is very mixed about whether it is beneficial or has no protective effectt (i.e. neutral).

It seems that as long as the parents do not smoke, have not been drinking or taking drugs, are not obese and you are careful not to overheat the baby (with duvets), bed-sharing does not increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and can enhance the rates of breast feeding. It can also help with bonding, particularly with dads, according to Professor Ball's research.

She suggested that it is not a straightforward health message to give. The Back to Sleep campaign (to put babies on their backs to sleep) was very successful because it was a simple care practice that did not interfere with parents cultural and personal values. It has also reduced SIDS significantly around the world. However, bed-sharing is tied up with cultural and personal values. Therefore, parents won't change their behaviour easily and the evidenceanyway suggests that there are good reasons to co-sleep (as much of the world's families do). She suggested that what we need is target health messages to specific groups, including those who are at risk of unplanned bed-sharing or co-sleeping.

I encourage you to read around the subject to make up your own mind: e.g. literature from your health visitor, the book Three in a Bed: The Benefits of Sleeping with Your Baby (, look on (Infant Sleep Information Source) and look out for the NICE guidance on Infant Sleep Location when it is published. (But please, do not sleep on the sofa with your baby and do put your baby on his/her back to sleep. There is lots of evidence that that is protective.) Oh the tricky world of parenting decisions!

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