The Family Bed Defended

by Karen Squires

“The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) is launching a mass-media national campaign aimed at “reducing deaths associated with placing babies in adult beds.”-The Compleat Mother magazine

I received this information in an email from The Compleat Mother Magazine. I have a burning question about their campaign. The CPSC is there to warn us about product safety, not family practices. I wonder why they are concerned with my family’s sleeping arrangements.

Wouldn’t it be nice if their focus was to help make the family bed a safer place, and not about scaring parents into buying cribs? But that’s not their goal.

The CPSC sited an average of 64 deaths per year of babies in adult beds. From this they decided to tell parents to avoid having the baby sleep in their bed. How many children die in car crashes every year? Why aren’t they warning us to keep our children out of cars? They aren’t. We are warned to use car seats, and taught to use them properly. Why not teach parents who want to have their children in bed with them how to do it safely?

The family bed is the practice of having babies/children sleeping in the same bed as their parents. We have a family bed ourselves. It wasn’t something that I planned on when our youngest child was born. It wasn’t something I’d even heard of. Not as something people actually wanted anyway. When I did hear of it, it was when parents who were too tired to handle a child who didn’t want to sleep alone, gave up and let the baby/child sleep with them. I wish I had been so smart.

Our older son had slept in a room by himself from 6 weeks on. I felt so overwhelmed by his needs during that day that I needed to be alone during the night to recoup. Looking back, I can see that I was a new mother who needed some help from family, friends, anybody in fact, to reduce my stress level. The answer then of course did not lie in needing to put my 6 week old in another room at night, but in getting more help during the day, or the night, to help me deal with motherhood better.

I was not following my instincts to have him near me at night, as I would wake up in the morning and upon not hearing him cry right away, would assume that he had succumbed to SIDS during the night. One such morning I lay in bed for about 20 minutes, terrified to go and check on him. I was sure he had died and I was trying to put off going through the horror of actually knowing that it had happened. He eventually began to cry and I was incredibly relieved.

After he turned 12 months I started to relax about SIDS, but then the fear that he would be kidnapped out of his crib during the night started to creep in. I would check all the windows and doors before going to bed at night in my attempt to guarantee his safety until morning when I could have him safely in my arms again.

Believe it or not it didn’t occur to me to ignore the pressures from society to push him away at night, and take him in my arms and keep him by my side.

When my second son was born,I was older and wiser. I was less likely to be affected by what the crowd was doing. I came home from the hospital with my newborn son, still not aware of the family bed concept. I had a crib, a very expensive mattress, cute sheets, blankets and bumpers to match.

I held him almost constantly for the first 2-3 days as relatives and friends dropped by to see my new baby. During one such visit I became overwhelmed and tired from all the visitors and decided to retire to the bedroom. I lay my new sleeping son in his fancy crib and started to walk toward my bed for a much needed nap. I hadn’t even made it three steps when he woke up crying. I went back to him, picked him up and started to rock him gently as I sang him a song. He was asleep in seconds. Again I lay him down in his crib and he awoke a few seconds later. This happened again and again. Over the next few days I grew more and more tired as I only managed to grab a few minutes sleep here and there. One day I was so desperate for sleep that I lay down in my bed with him, too tired to stand any longer. I made the bed safe for him, and fell asleep almost instantly. I woke up 2 hours later, the most amount of sleep I’d had in over a week. My baby was starting to stir, he was hungry, and this no doubt had awakened me. This was my first experience with the family bed. He has been in my bed every night since, over five years now.

I didn’t immediately accept the family bed as a good thing. I did it because if I was to survive, I had to sleep. I couldn’t leave him screaming for me, ignoring his cries. It would have broken my heart.

The first year was the hardest. I had family telling me to get him out of my bed. That I would suffocate him, roll on him, he’d roll off the bed. On and on went the warnings. But I knew he needed me close, and as a bonus I was not waking up in the morning wondering if he was alive. I could see that SIDS had not taken him, and no stranger was going to get into my bed, steal my baby, and leave without me hearing something. I was content being close to him and he was content being close to me.

It’s instinct for a mother and baby to be near each other. Mother nature intended it that way to ensure the babe survives. Can you imagine a mother a million years ago leaving her baby in another part of the cave to sleep? The child would probably die from the cold, or get eaten by a predator. We don’t live in caves now but human instinct has not changed. Our babies don’t know what year it is, what century we live in. Nor do they care. All they know is that they need their mother and as mothers we should not ignore their needs.

Maria Montessori said that “If you want to understand the needs of the child, observe and study the child.” It isn’t hard to realize that your child needs you at night as well as during the day. How confusing to a child to be hugged and kissed, have their needs and wants attended to during the day, only to be pushed away at night. Your child’s cries, nightmares, and fears of the dark are reminders that they are not meant to be left alone. When a child is left to “cry it out” in his or her own bed the parent may assume that the child has learned to sleep alone. What the child has really learned is that their cries were not answered. Their needs not met. And what appears to be a well-adjusted child sleeping in her own bed may be a child that has learned not to ask for help.

Some parents fear the child will never choose to leave the family bed and sleep on his own. Should we never carry our babies for fear they will never walk? Shall we put them on the potty at birth for fear they’ll never outgrow diapers, or should we even skip the potty for fear they’ll never use toilet? Children grow up and leave soon enough. Why do we feel the need to push them out? “Society has taken away the right of a baby to be dependent on its mother.” (The Family Bed by Tine Thevenin)

But what about safety? It is important to keep babies safe. The CPSC sites strangulation and suffocation as reasons for keeping babies out of adult beds. They didn’t, however, mention how many babies died from this same cause in cribs during the same time frame.

How do parents have a safe family bed? Keep pillows and thick blankets off the bed. 15 of the deaths sited by the CPSC were caused by blankets and pillows. This same danger exists in a crib. Make sure the baby can’t slip between the mattress and the wall. Keep all furniture like bedside tables away from the bed so that if the child rolls off the bed he/she can’t get lodged between the bed and furniture. Check headboards and footboards for safety. If there are bars, make sure that the child can’t get her head stuck between them. Check that the mattress fits the frame well and that it fits tightly with the headboard and footboard. Don’t take drugs; even some over the counter drugs can make you less aware of your baby. Don’t drink alcohol. If the bed is against the wall, make sure it is firmly against the wall. Babies can fall between them and suffocate. I check the bed is tight against the wall every night, without fail. And never take a baby or child to bed with you if you sleep in a waterbed or have a feather bed. Don’t sleep with babies or small children on couches or sofa beds either.

Many children have died in cribs. “There are no statistics comparing the number of SIDS deaths that occurred in bed vs. the number that occurred in the crib. Until those statistics are known, the CPSC should not tell parents not to sleep with their babies,” -Dr. William Sears.

It is unlikely that a parent will roll over on a baby and smother it unless the parent is using drugs, alcohol, or is in some way unable to arouse from sleep normally. Babies have built in alarm systems that arouse them if their air is reduced. Have you ever had a baby out on a windy day? The young baby panics quickly when the wind blows in their face and they can’t breath. A baby that is choking will also react alarmingly. If you happen to roll on your baby, you would be awakened by a startled baby, instinct having kicked in, crying from the discomfort. Another reason why it’s unlikely you’ll roll over on your baby is that adults sleep in beds without rails. Do we fall off the bed? I don’t. You have the same ability to stay off your baby.

At the risk of sounding sexist, I’ll say that I believe mothers, in many cases, are more aware of baby at night than fathers. Mother nature has it that mothers do most of the baby care while fathers hunt for food. We had our baby sleep between me and the wall and daddy slept on the outer edge.

Dr. William Sears insists that it’s far safer for babies to sleep with their parents than to not sleep with them. Crib-related death takes more babies each year than deaths caused by the family bed. Family bed deaths are an average of 64 per year while crib-related deaths take about 2500.

I wonder why the CPSC and JPMA are not interested in making the family bed a safe environment. I wonder why the two organizations have teamed up in the first place. Could it be to get us to buy more cribs? I hope not. The JPMA is a multi-million dollar industry that stands to profit from scared parents running out and buying cribs.

How accurate is the data that the CPSC is using to support their claim that the family bed is unsafe? “There is disturbing advertisement evidence that the information upon which these definitive claims are made is incomplete, unreliable and misguided. The CPSC’s data was collected from death certificates, coroner’s reports and other anecdotal sources. Circumstances surrounding the deaths, such as parental intoxication, are not recorded in these records. In addition, the determination of the cause of death is often subjective and is not always consistent even in comparable situations. In many areas of the country, infants who may have died from SIDS or other physical ailments in the parental bed are often recorded as cases of overlying.”-iVillage/

I want the CPSC to do an unbiased report of the different kinds of sleeping arrangements available. And they need to do it independently of JPMA. Parents don’t need to be scared into spending money on a crib. They need to know that they can trust the reports of the CPSC.

If you want to practice the family bed, make it a safe environment and enjoy the company of your babies. If you don’t feel comfortable with it then get a safe bed for your baby and put it close to your bed.

Remember to follow your instincts, be safe, and enjoy your children.

This article first appeared in The Wise Mother magazine, published in Salt Lake City, Utah. 




  1. Pingback: Safe Co-Sleeping on a Non-Toxic Mattress
  2. I read this book in 1996 during my first pregnancy , which happened to be with naturally conceived triplets . Every hour sleeping together counts as an hour of quality time with the child (ren). Our triplet boys slept with us until the age of seven, at four they were joined by their baby sister, making us six in a king size bed,. Not one hundred percent certain but I strongly believe that our family bed helped shape them to become the wonderful adults we are blessed with today.

    1. Claudia, this is so wonderful to hear! Thanks for sharing! I do believe that sleeping with my daughter was part of the reason why she’s such an amazing, confident and independent 25 year-old. Didn’t have six in a bed, though – wow, what fun!

  3. My husband and I enjoy having our girls, 3 and 4, in bed with us. We don’t have rooms per se, as upstairs is one big room divided by the stair railing/banister, so our girls are not used to the traditional room separation common in most American homes.

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