New Baby Sleep Info Goes Against Everything We've Been Told

sleeping baby in crib
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When you're a new parent, few things are more important than the three S's: sleep, safety, and sanity. Most of us attain those things by carefully heeding the advice of experts, like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which advises that the best and safest sleep option for parents with new babies is to room-share for at least the first six months (and even up to the first year!). But a new baby sleep study proves those recommendations might actually be a bad idea, and it's got exhausted parents everywhere scratching their heads.

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The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, shows babies who room-share -- that is, sleep in the same room as their parents but on a separate surface -- beyond 4 months actually get less sleep at night and sleep for shorter stretches than babies who sleep alone. Even more troubling, researchers found parents are more likely to engage in unsafe sleep behaviors, like bed-sharing or using blankets and stuffed animals, the longer they share a room with their babies.

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The study looked at the sleeping habits of 230 families and found that infants who slept alone by the time they reached 4 months old got, on average, about nine hours of sleep per night. Meanwhile babies who continued to room-share beyond 4 months got about 8.3 hours, and babies who room-shared beyond 9 months got 7.4 hours. By age 2.5, all the kids got similar amounts of sleep, but those who roomed with their parents beyond 9 months old got about 45 minutes less sleep than the other kids.

So, what's the deal, and what does this mean for the AAP recommendations we've been following since forever?

Ian Paul, the study's lead author, tells NPR he thinks the AAP's recommendations are more about preventing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) than improving sleep. The current AAP guidelines are a part of increased efforts to reduce cases of SIDs and other sleep-related deaths. According to their report, allowing a baby to sleep in your bedroom but on a separate surface can decrease the risk of SIDS by as much as 50 percent.

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The problem, Paul tells NPR, is that recommendations to room-share for an extended period of time end up forcing parents to sacrifice their infant's sleep (and their own sleep) in the hopes of reducing a SIDS risk that is already pretty small. In 2015, the last year for which data is available, around 1,600 babies died of SIDS out of nearly 4 million births, and fewer than 10 percent of those babies were over 6 months old.

According to NPR, Paul says the risk of a baby dying from SIDS after 6 months of age is "exceedingly rare," while the "risks from inadequate sleep in parents may be more serious, such as motor vehicle accidents, poorer bonding with their baby, marital strain and child abuse such as abusive head trauma (shaken baby syndrome)."

In other words, sleep is important, and being constantly exhausted and never getting a break from your infant could potentially take a toll on your physical and emotional health that puts babies at risk in other ways.

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Obviously, parents are interested in keeping babies as safe as possible. But, most of us are also exhausted and just want a functional, reliable sleep routine. All of this conflicting information doesn't make those goals seem any more attainable. As with most big parenting decisions, it seems the answer is to do what works for you.

Besides room-sharing, the AAP says you can reduce the risk of SIDS by breastfeeding, putting babies to sleep with no bedding or toys, avoiding secondhand smoke exposure, and using a pacifier at bedtime and during naps. As long as you're taking the appropriate safety precautions, it seems the official ruling on how long you share a room with your baby is up to you.

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