Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) also known as “cot death” can be prevented by keeping babies in the same room as parents for the first year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). However, a new study by researchers at Penn State College of Medicine suggests that this practice may actually be detrimental to infant health.
What is SIDS?
SIDS is the unexpected and unexplained death of an apparently healthy infant, which is less than a year old. SIDS usually occurs when babies are asleep and within the first six months of life. The aetiology of SIDS is unknown however, it is thought to involve a combination of factors such as early delivery and low body weight. It is thought that these venerable babies struggle to regulate their breathing, heart rate and temperature, and may struggle to cope with certain environmental stressors such as tobacco smoke or a minor illness.
Additionally, parents co-sleeping with their baby is also associated with SIDS. This may be surprising to most parents, as a worn out parent asleep on the sofa with an infant on their chest is a common sight in many households. But according to the AAP, it may be putting the baby’s health at risk and the practice is actively discouraged .
Sharing a room after 4 months may be detrimental to baby safety and health
Data from the INSIGHT study was used to evaluate sleep outcomes and room sharing between parents and their baby. 279 mothers who gave birth at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Centre completed questionnaires when the infants were 4 and 9 months old. Questions assessed sleep duration, location, night waking, night feedings, bedtime routines and sleep behaviours. A follow up questionnaire on sleep pattern, duration and location was also conducted at 12 and 30 months.
The results indicate that babies who slept independently had more total sleep than babies who room shared. At 4 months, infants who were sleeping in a separate room to a parent had longer stretches of continuous sleep, on average 45-minutes, compared to their room-sharing peers. This increase in continuous sleep extended the older the infant, with 9 month olds having on average 1 hour and 40 minute more sleep than babies still sharing a room.
Sleep safety also appeared to be negatively affected by room sharing, as unapproved, potentially hazardous objects such as blankets and pillows, were more likely to be found in the cots of 4 month old babies who were sharing a room with a parent . Interestingly, not all outcomes were affected by rooms sharing, as breastfeeding outcomes did not change.
Professor Ian Paul, who is one of the lead authors of this study, commented in a press release that one of the most worrying findings was that room sharing often led to bed sharing between parents and infants. This is a particular concern as bed sharing is associated with SIDS and is not recommended by the AAP or the NHS .
Current AAP guidelines recommend babies to sleep in the same room as a parent for their first 1 year, however this study highlights the negative impact this may have on infant health and development. Further work will need to be conducted before a conclusive outcome can be drawn, as the female cohort who answered the questionnaires may not be representative of low income, non-white families.
In addition to SIDS, obesity and poor sleep later in life are common problems associated with deficient infant sleep, however I would imagine the most immediate issue for most parents is their restless baby keeping them awake at night!
 Penn state news. (2017). Baby sleeping in same room associated with less sleep, unsafe sleep habits [press release]. Retrieved from: http://news.psu.edu/story/470535/2017/06/05/research/baby-sleeping-same-room-associated-less-sleep-unsafe-sleep-habits