Are We All Secretly Co-sleeping?

According to Instagram and TikTok, the answer is yes. If only we could talk about it outside of the comments section.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty

Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.

When I was pregnant, I imagined the mother I’d be: a perfect image of maternal serenity. On my daughter’s second night home with us from the hospital, I remember placing her in the bedside bassinet and setting an alarm to wake and feed her in a few hours. Ah, I thought, everything is working out exactly as I’d hoped. Ten months later, that blind confidence haunted me. That night, she didn’t go to sleep. Nor the next. Nor the next. While she’d doze off in my arms or on my chest, as soon as I’d move to put her down, she’d start screaming.

During the day, I’d prop myself up on the couch, watching endless seasons of The Real Housewives, trying to stay awake as she snoozed on me, terrified of drifting off myself in case she slipped from my exhausted grasp. At night, I’d move in loops around my home, pacing her to sleep, settling her in the crib, picking her up when she’d immediately wake and start moaning.

At the end of two weeks, I thought I was going to go insane. I’d dreamed of total connection. I got a conjoined nightmare.

One afternoon, a friend with an older child came to visit. She’d barely made it through the door before I collapsed in her arms. Holding me while I held my baby, I explained the anxiety, fear, and darkness that filled this sleepless void. Depositing me on the couch, she asked a question I’d been too scared to ask myself: “Have you considered co-sleeping?”

Technically, co-sleeping refers to sleeping in close proximity to your child — whether in the same bed or on a separate mattress in the same room. Bed-sharing, a form of co-sleeping, is when you are in the same bed. In practice, the terms are used interchangeably, mostly referring to having your child in the adult bed.

This, of course, goes against what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. Infants should be placed on their backs, according to the AAP, “for sleep in their own sleep space with no other people.” Some babies may require swaddling, a noise machine, blackout curtains, or a little rocking, but the overall impression is that your child is a simplistic machine — adjust the settings correctly, and they will rest. But at no time should you bring your infant into the bed.

The AAP cautions that co-sleeping “should be avoided at all times” with infants younger than four months. The organization’s reasoning is that co-sleeping increases the chance of sleep-related fatalities such as sudden infant death syndrome, accidental suffocation, and strangulation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, in 2020, there were “about 905 [infant] deaths due to accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed.” (Globally, co-sleeping is more common and less divisive. Yale research finds that bed-sharing is traditional in at least 40 percent of all documented cultures.)

A long-term devotee to data, I inhaled the warnings before my baby was born and promised to be the kind of parent who was always governed by science and research. But two weeks into the job, I was desperate. What if the baby didn’t appreciate the calculated safety of the expensive crib I spent weeks researching? What if the swaddle, noise machine, and blackout curtains didn’t lull them into a fantasy of being in the womb? What if the only thing that soothed them was my own imperfect, apparently unsafe body?

“Do you co-sleep?” I asked my friend, amazed that this woman I admired, who seemed so in control, the picture of motherhood I wanted to emulate, would do something I’d been told was essentially endangering her child’s life.

“Yes, we always have. It’s been great.”

We went to the bedroom, where she walked me through how her family did it. Stripping the bed of blankets, removing pillows, and placing the dog on the floor, she curved me around my child, showing me how to hold my arm to ensure I wouldn’t roll on top of her in my sleep.

That night, my partner relocated to the couch, and my daughter and I assumed our position on the bare mattress. For the first time in two weeks, I slept. We both did. The next day, I texted my friend the news. It felt like she’d saved my life.

Still, I was unable to shake the sense that I was doing something unsafe and selfish. At our next checkup, the nurse reviewed my file, peppered with notes flagging maternal distress and calls for help. “You’ve had issues with sleep. How’s that going?”

I froze. “It’s settled down a lot,” I replied.

“She’s sleeping in her crib?”

Unable to lie directly, I nodded and we moved on.

After a few weeks of successful co-sleeping, I had questions. Could my partner return from the couch? What happened on hot nights? Would she be in my bed forever? Usually, I looked to the nurse or pediatrician for help, but with this, I couldn’t bear to face their judgment. Instead, I turned where I always go when I feel lost — the internet.

By now, Instagram and TikTok knew I had an infant. My feed was full of soft-voiced women advising me on baby-led weaning and sensory play. For years, social media had schooled me on everything from social-justice dialogues to how to cuff my jeans like a French girl. Was it such a stretch for the algorithm to tell me how to parent? I typed #cosleeping in the search bar.

While co-sleeping seemed to be something that parents only talked about in hushed voices and knowing glances, it’s a booming conversation online. Instagram and TikTok are overflowing with accounts preaching to massive and vocal communities. Across endless posts, webbed together with hashtags like #cosleepingmama, #cosleepingrocks, #cosleepinglife, and #cosleepingforthewin, I collected advice and heard about its benefits.

On Instagram, blush- and sage-colored tiles insisted that co-sleeping was far from dangerous. In fact, it was natural, the biological norm practiced around the world. Women who referred to each other as “mama” pointed out that all land mammals sleep with their young. They shared breakdowns of sleep environments, advised on changing child needs, and handed down tips on managing sex with a kid in the bed.

For the first time since bringing her into my bed, I felt the shame recede. Maybe I wasn’t a bad mother? Maybe I, too, was a natural mama connected to history, biology, and my child? I scrolled more and more, sailing on their smooth validation.

A couple of months later, another friend had a baby and history repeated itself. Everyday, we talked on the phone. She cried as I tried to reassure her that it would get easier. She would survive. Just look at me.

“How? How did you get through?”

Lying to her felt different. I couldn’t promise that the same official advice that was driving her mad would eventually shake out. So I explained I’d been shown to share my bed in a way that felt safe to me. The next day, she texted, “We did it! We slept!”

After that, I brought it up more. I expected shock and fear, to be pummeled with statistics and warnings. Instead, time and time again, I heard, “Oh yeah, we’ve always co-slept.”

Once you get past the breezy photos of breastfeeding women in flower crowns that greet you as you first enter the online co-sleeping space, a certain type of influencer begins to take over your algorithm: self-styled sleep experts who see themselves as much as an educator as a friend. They move beyond the general assurances that co-sleeping is safe and natural, frequently quoting the work of academics like Helen Ball, Dr. Pamela Douglas, and Dr. James McKenna. Their audience wants guides, schedules, authorities.

One such account is @cosleepy, a.k.a. Tiffany Belanger, a self-educated expert on infant sleep from Sacramento. She is in her mid-30s, and her Instagram account is adorned with all of the white linens, indoor plants, and wicker furniture — as well as a familiar mix of infographics, quote tiles, and memes — that you’d expect from a millennial. Reading her captions, I’m reminded of conversations I’ve had with my own friends. She gently pokes fun at the physical discomforts of sharing a bed with a rowdy toddler, offers even-tempered advice on answering probing questions from family members, and commiserates over the complicated swell of emotions that parenting brings. In the comments section, mothers (it’s always mothers) share their own stories, thanking her for helping them create a co-sleeping practice and deal with the internal and external shame they confronted when they decided to do so.

Belanger didn’t set out to be a sleep educator. After graduating with a B.A. in communications studies from UCLA, she initially wanted to work in film and TV but, after having her own children, became frustrated with mainstream sleep guidance and the lack of resources around co-sleeping. She started the account in 2020 as a place to share findings from her personal research on infant sleep.

Belanger trawls publications from academics and organizations like the Lullaby Trust to create resources that can be consumed in minutes, not hours. “I’m focusing on simply passing along the research and recommendations from the experts and trying to make it simple for the modern, working, probably in-debt millennial parent,” she tells me over Zoom.

These resources are offered as free and paywall-protected guides on her site. All information around safe sleep practices (including selecting the right pillows, blankets, and mattresses) is available to anyone who signs up for her mailing list. More detailed and specific breakdowns on creating routines, managing older children, looking after your inevitably aching body, getting in and out of bed without waking your child, and even eating dinner with a baby on your chest cost $29.

“There are a lot of parents who follow me who are full-time lawyers and doctors, and they bed-share, because they say that’s the only time they get to spend with their child,” Belanger says. “There are people who begrudgingly do it, because they’ve tried sleep-training programs, spent thousands of dollars, and by the time they come to me, they say, ‘I’m just giving up. This is not what we wanted. This is not what we wanted for our life. We tried really hard, but with our baby and their temperament, it has become clear that they will only sleep in our bed.’”

The depth and detail of content available through social media is welcomed by people, like me, who felt unseen by the doctors and nurses they’d initially turned to for advice. Support ranges from free PDFs to paywalled articles and online courses. Many sleep educators offer personalized services, spending time with families to develop individual routines for them. These one-on-one offerings can range from a few hundred dollars for a set of sessions to thousands for ongoing support that can include overnight stays and 24-hour phone support. But amid the warmhearted calls to trust biology, let go of expectations, and return to nature, it’s hard to ignore the free-wheeling tone of much of the information.

The world of sleep consultants at large is unregulated, and online co-sleeping communities are tinged with a sense of distrust in traditional medical and child-care authorities. In rebuttal to established warnings from the AAP and CDC, co-sleep influencers and defenders sometimes make broad claims about complex topics (such as SIDS) with little to no wider context or even links to data. They evangelize the benefits and safety of the practice via Instagram squares and stories that are easy to share but almost impossible to fact-check (if we could agree on the facts anyway). Individual maternal-health workers often respond to controversial posts, but they’re a small breeze against a gale of ever-growing content.

These medical professionals make up a large part of co-sleeping’s opposing “safe sleep” movement. Like the influencers, they break down complex and often clinical parental guidance into easy-to-digest posts and videos. But unlike with their significantly more pastel-themed counterparts, their content prizes official guidelines and data above all else. These creators tend to wear scrubs, not linen.

@nurse.carly is a 35-year-old former nurse and mom of three from Orlando who shares parenting tips with her 254.8K TikTok followers. She, like most doctors and nurses in these spaces, is “100 percent anti co-sleeping,” she tells me. “In my professional experience, that’s what we’re taught. When a patient comes to the postpartum unit, one of the first things you tell them is that you absolutely cannot have your newborn in the bed with you.” While she sympathizes with exhausted parents, she’s adamant that “we know that practice increases the risk of your baby dying. You weigh the pros and cons, and it’s an obvious choice to me.”

After over a decade working as a registered pregnancy and birth nurse at a local hospital, Carly left her full-time job in 2020, because she didn’t feel safe working and looking after young children during the pandemic. Now, she focuses on social media as her primary way to educate new parents (as well as drawing in income through sponsorships with relevant brands like Buy Buy Baby and Natural Cycles). Despite this, she’s conscious of the challenges that arise when these platforms become key sources for individuals who’re uncomfortable having open conversations with health workers.

“I find the current climate of social media — the way sensitive, life-altering information like this is shared and the way people pick and choose who to listen to — terrifying, truthfully,” she says. “There’s so much distrust in the medical community right now that’s pushing people toward I’d rather listen to this influencer that I love. I love her life. I love her kids. I want to listen to what she’s doing. Versus This medical nurse doesn’t have my best interest at heart. She is just trying to make me feel bad.”

Not surprisingly, the comments sections of her posts are turbulent. Parents share brutal accounts of losing children to SIDS while co-sleeping as well as call her out for fearmongering or disregarding non-western cultural practices.

The mainstream rejection of co-sleeping has had the unintended consequence of creating a culture of binary “best practice” advice with individual needs eclipsed by data points and families left feeling erased. So the co-sleeping conversation went publically dormant. Even those most invested in the topic were left struggling to bridge the divide.

“Some will argue that if we don’t tell our doctors we’re co-sleeping safely, they won’t know how often we do it and how it works out safely, the statistics will keep getting skewed, and they’re going think, Oh, all my patients sleep train or put their baby in a crib, and I don’t have any patients who co-sleep,” Belanger says, but telling the truth can be scary. “Especially at the beginning, when we’re exhausted. Do we want to add another thing? To tell the pediatrician the truth about the sleep situation and risk being yelled at? Probably not.”

Sue Powers is a midwife, therapist, and birth educator who has worked in hospitals and been involved in the home-birth movement. Despite spending her professional life in a world that resisted co-sleeping, she shared her bed with both of her children. Still, she found the topic difficult to explore at work. Performing home visits as a nurse, she’d often sense that parents were bringing their children into their beds “out of sheer desperation to sleep but a lot of cultural expectation that this is how you sleep with your babies.”

She wanted to ask about their cultural practices or offer information on reducing risks, but hospital policy prevented her from doing so. “We weren’t allowed to have a conversation around it. We’re not teaching people how to do that safely, and when we don’t do that, it becomes hidden.”

Instead, she provided the same guidance my friends and I had heard so many times, understanding it was often irrelevant. “You know that as soon as you walk away, they’re either going to go back to co-sleeping the way they were or you’ve terrified them in some way, which isn’t helpful.”

Belanger and Powers’s personal and professional experiences have left them skeptical of the mainstream willingness to participate in co-sleeping discussions. But there is evidence that the divide between these two worlds is closing as the establishment and the “fringe” begin to engage.

In 2019, UNICEF and the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine released new guidelines for health professionals that addressed bed-sharing and acknowledged the importance of speaking to parents about it without judgment.

Globally, this broadening approach is showing promising results. In the U.K., bed-sharing isn’t officially encouraged, but it is acknowledged — with health-care providers offering safety information rather than condemnation. According to the Lullaby Trust, SIDS in the U.K. has fallen by 40 percent since 2003. In contrast, SIDS rates in the U.S. have remained largely unchanged.

When my friend first mentioned co-sleeping, I was shocked and conflicted. But after witnessing so many parents share their experiences online and opening up in my own community, I realized that I was surrounded by a cabal of co-sleepers hiding in plain sight.

“We ended up co-sleeping, because it was the only way we could sleep,” admits Molly, a fellow journalist, mom of almost 2-year-old Joey, and one of many mothers who opened up to me about their co-sleeping journeys when I finally started speaking up.

Initially, Molly worried others would think that she was “a bad parent, a lazy parent, or you’re not trying hard enough to get them to sleep in a bassinet.” She told herself it was “only for a few weeks — just until we were rested enough to return to those awful nights when we were putting her back in the bassinet every hour.” But quickly, she saw that “co-sleeping meant both we and Joey were having the best sleep ever. And we’re still co-sleeping.”

Like me, Molly was ashamed at first — as though her apparently singular sleep issues were due to an inability to bear her prescribed level of maternal suffering: “My shame comes back to this idea where you think others feel you’d rather sleep and risk rolling onto your baby than just slogging it out.”

Two years after she started co-sleeping, Molly is now more settled with her choice — largely because she realizes it’s not a fringe decision. All those parents from the comments sections were closer than she’d realized. “I’d talk to other parents and ask, ‘How’s your sleep going?’ They’d be like, ‘Good.’ Then you’d sort of eye each other, and one of you would say, ‘We co-sleep.’ And the other would say, ‘We co-sleep too!’ You’d have this moment of solidarity, where it was, like, yes there are other people out there who do this.”

According to a 2015 CDC survey, 61 percent of babies in the U.S. bed-share at least some of the time. That was up from only 13 percent in 2000 and 5.5 percent in 1993.

It’s worth noting that the numbers may be even higher. Not only do feelings of judgment potentially prevent people from being transparent about their sleeping arrangement, but research shows that when they do talk about where their child sleeps, they usually refer to where they start the night, hence excluding children who move to a parent’s bed later in the evening.

Ten months on, my child is still in my bed. I don’t know if I’ve become the mother I’d imagined before she was born, but I’m less afraid, less ashamed. I feel confident having her beside me at last.

Although, after almost a year, she has starting to fall asleep in her own crib and even sleep through the night. Sometimes, I wake up alone, having been apart from her for ten hours or more. In those early weeks, I’d dreamed of an empty bed, unbroken stretches of time to myself. Now, I’m surprised how sad it makes me.

Being a parent is always being afraid of something. Worrying she’d never sleep, or get hurt, or someone would judge me for sleeping with her. Now, I worry about being apart, of her needing me less, growing up and away.

At least I can talk about these tangled feelings. Bring them up to friends or online. Perhaps, one day, to the doctors and nurses who absorb the brunt of my other parenting anxieties. I know I’m not alone. Even when she’s in her own bed.

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Are We All Secretly Co-sleeping?