From the age of four months, babies sleep better when they're in their own rooms. That's according to new research, which contradicts current recommendations around safe infant sleep practices.
Babies rooming with their parents had poorer sleep consolidation (reduced stretches of sleep) and were four times more likely to end up bed-sharing with their caregivers during the night than those in their own rooms, according to a study published this week in the journal Pediatrics.
"Perhaps our most troubling finding was that room-sharing was associated with overnight transitions to bed-sharing, which is strongly discouraged by the American Academy of Pediatrics," said lead author Dr Ian Paul in a statement.
As part of the research, 279 mothers completed questionnaires when their babies were four and nine months old, and again at 12 and 30 months. Information around sleep duration, location, night waking, night feedings, bedtime routines and sleep behaviours were collated to examine the effects of parent-baby room sharing on babies' quality of sleep and sleep habits.
When their babies were three months old, half the mothers were encouraged to consider moving their children to where they'd be sleeping at age one. They were also told that "such a move would be more difficult if the family waited much beyond that point". The other half received intensive advice on reducing SIDS risk via home visits from early childhood nurses.
More than 50 per cent of the infants were sleeping in their own room by four months old.
Along with poorer sleep consolidation and a higher incidence of unsafe sleeping practices in room-sharers, the researchers also found:
- At nine months, early independent sleepers (those who slept in their own room from under four months) slept 40 more minutes per night than room-sharers - and 26 more minutes more than those who moved to their own rooms between four and nine months.
At 30 months, both early and later independent sleepers slept on average more than 45 minutes longer at night than those who were room-sharing at 9 months
- Early independent sleepers had increased odds of having a consistent bedtime routine and being put to bed by 8pm, compared to those rooming with their parents.
In addition, at four months of age, room-sharing infants had greater odds of having an unapproved object that could increase the chances of SIDS (blankets, pillows, etc) on their sleep surface than those who were sleeping by themselves.
The results have important health and safety implications. "Inadequate sleep has been associated with poorer cognitive, psychomotor, physical, and socio-emotional development, which includes emotion regulation, mood, and behaviour in infancy and childhood," the authors note, adding that short sleep duration during infancy is also associated with inadequate sleep later in childhood.
And yet, they continue, "The desire to optimise infant sleep duration and consolidation must be balanced with safe infant sleep." Previous research, the authors explain, has shown that most SIDS deaths occur when infants are one to four months old, with 90 per cent occurring before the age of six months.
"Many pediatricians 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, making it problematic to change sleep locations at that stage," Dr Paul said.
Based on their findings of poorer sleep-related outcomes and higher incidence of unsafe sleep practices in room-sharing infant-parent pairs, the authors suggest that current "well-intended" recommendations are in need of review. "The AAP should reconsider and revise the recommendation pending evidence to support room-sharing through the age of 1 year," they write.
Until then, Dr Paul is encouraging parents to discuss the study's findings and safe sleep guidance with their pediatrician.
For current Australian guidelines around safe sleeping practices, visit Red Nose.