Bed sharing with an infant, or co-sleeping, has become a hot-button issue for many parents. Adding tinder to the fire, a new study has found co-sleeping to be associated with a higher risk of death, especially among infants under 4 months of age.
After analyzing data on 8,207 infant deaths from 24 states that occurred between 2004 and 2012, researchers determined that nearly 74 percent of deaths in babies younger than 4 months occurred in a bed-sharing situation, according to the study published Monday in Pediatrics.
Among older infants—those aged 4 months to 364 days—the rate was slightly lower, at nearly 59 percent.
So how common is bed sharing?
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"One recent study showed that up to 45 percent of parents reported they had bed shared at one point in the past two weeks," said Dr. Jeffrey Colvin, the new study's lead author and a pediatrician at Children's Mercy Hospital and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri. "Another recent study found that 11 percent of parents reported bed sharing as a usual practice."
Colvin and his colleagues started looking into co-sleeping in an effort to explain some sad statistics.
"SIDS and other sleep related deaths are the third leading cause of infant mortality in the U.S., and after the first month of life, they are the leading cause," Colvin said.
While the researchers were able to associate bed-sharing with a higher risk of death in infants, they did not analyze factors that are known to increase the risk of death in co-sleeping infants, such as parental smoking and alcohol consumption. That data may be part of a future study, Colvin said.
It's also not possible to get a sense of how common these deaths are because the researchers did not have data on the total number of babies born in the 24 states during the study period. But Colvin allowed that the deaths "can be very rare."
Still, Colvin said, "you have this perfectly healthy infant that has no health problems, no risk of dying, and for them to suddenly and completely unexpectedly die is so tragic."
Colvin suggests a compromise for parents who want to sleep next to their babies: co-sleepers.
"These are devices that sit next to the bed and allow babies to have their own safe space," Colvin explained. "They haven't been studied yet, but they are still very promising."