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Room sharing between babies and parents beyond the first four months is associated with less sleep for babies and unsafe sleeping practices, new research suggests.
The US study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that if babies remain sleeping in their parents’ bedroom they can also lose their ability to self-soothe and are at a later risk of child obesity due to lost sleep.
Dr Ian Paul, from Penn State College of Medicine and lead author of the study, said: “Babies have brief waking episodes overnight and I suspect parents in the same room are more likely to respond to those awakenings rather than let the baby go back to sleep on their own.
“This starts a vicious cycle where a baby becomes accustomed to a parent responding to them. Instead of self-soothing, they need a more complex and prolonged interaction such as being rocked or fed to sleep.”
Researchers at the University of Virginia used data they had already collected from the INSIGHT study, which included the sleeping patterns of 279 mothers and their babies.
At four months, children who slept independently in their own room averaged 45-minute longer stretches of continuous sleep than those who shared a room with a parent. Independent sleepers also had fewer night feedings compared with 'room-sharers'.
At nine months, those who learned to sleep independently by four months had sleep stretches that averaged 1 hour and 40 minutes longer than babies who were still sleeping in their parent’s room.
The study found the average nine-month-old sleeping independently had almost ten and a half hours of sleep a night, but one sharing a room with a parent had only nine hours and 47 minutes.
These early decisions by parents had lasting effects. At 30 months, babies who had room-shared at nine months slept, on average, 45 minutes less per night than those who were independent sleepers at four months.
Researchers also found that room sharing affected sleep safety. Babies who shared a room were more likely to have a blanket, pillow or other objects that could increase chances of SIDS than those who slept in their own room.
Whilst US guidelines recommend room-sharing for the first year, NHS guidance recommends keeping a baby in a separate cot in the parent’s room for the first six months.
Professor Paul added: “Inadequate infant sleep can lead to obesity, poor sleep later in life and can negatively affect parents.
"Many paediatricians and sleep experts question the room-sharing recommendation until one year because infants begin to experience separation anxiety in the second half of the first year. This makes it problematic to change sleep locations at that stage.
“Waiting too long can have negative effects on sleep quality for parents and infants in both the short and long-term."