The percentage of parents who sleep with their infant in the same bed has been steadily rising over the past two decades. In a study by Dr. Eve Colson and colleagues from Yale University recently published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the overall rate of parents regularly sleeping with their infants rose from 6.5% in 1993 to 13.5% in 2010. African American infants were particularly likely to share a bed with their parents with a rate of nearly 40% in 2010. Infants were about 4-5 months old when the survey was completed.
In addition to race, lower income, less education, younger infant age, preterm birth, and geography were found to be associated with bed sharing (higher in the west and south, lower in the Mid-Atlantic).
The survey also asked participants if the topic was discussed with their doctor and if the physician’s attitude was positive or negative. A total of 54 percent of the sample reported no input from their physician. Of those who did receive input, nearly three-quarters reported the advice was against the practice. Parents who were cautioned against bed sharing were less likely to do so.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants share a room but not a bed with their parents due to the documented association between bed sharing and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Some, however, have argued that this association has less to do with actual bed sharing and more to do with other factors such as infants sleeping in places other than bed, such as sofas, and parental substance use.
The study is sure to rekindle the age old debate about the family bed. And with little solid research to support either developmental advantages or disadvantages to the practice, the discussion will likely focus on the small but devastating risk of SIDS versus a worldwide tradition that to many parents feels as natural as babies themselves.
David C. Rettew, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center and director of the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Program. He is author of Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness and a child psychiatrist in the psychiatry and pediatrics departments at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Follow him at @PediPsych on Twitter.