Sharing a bed with an infant is still a “relatively common” practice in Canada despite public health warnings, according to a first-of-its-kind study looking at the prevalence of bed-sharing in the country.

The study used data collected from Statistic Canada’s 2015 and 2016 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), which surveyed 5,329 women between the ages of 15 and 55 who had given birth in the past five years.

The data found that while 40 per cent of mothers said their baby has never slept in the same bed with someone, a third of respondents, or 33 per cent, said they or someone else shared a bed with their infant nearly every day.

This is despite public health campaigns advising against the practice out of concern for the baby’s safety.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), bed-sharing, which is when an infant shares the same sleep surface with an adult or another child, may increase the baby’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and suffocation.

The government agency said the baby can suffocate if they become trapped between the sleep surface and the body of the other person in the bed, the wall, or other objects. There is also the risk the adult or other child could roll onto the infant. Bedding materials, such as pillows and comforters, can also increase the baby’s chance of suffocation.

The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), which also warns against bed-sharing, said soft bedding can cover a baby’s head and cause overheating.

“Babies who get their head covered during sleep are at increased risk of SIDS,” the association said.

PHAC said the risk of SIDS is even higher if the baby shares a bed with a person who is a smoker, very tired, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Instead, both PHAC and CPS recommend “room-sharing” or placing the infant on his or her back in a crib in the same room as their caregiver as the safest sleeping arrangement for babies.

However, proponents of the practice cite potential physical and psychological benefits, such as facilitating breastfeeding and bonding, as reasons to share a bed with their infant.

In fact, breastfeeding was listed as the number one reason, at 39 per cent, why mothers chose to share a bed with their baby, according to the study. This was particularly prevalent among frequent bed-sharers as opposed to occasional ones who cited facilitating sleep for themselves or the child as their main reason for engaging in the practice.

Occasional bed-sharers were described in the study as those who slept on the same surface as the infant one or twice a week, a few times a month, or less than once a month.

The study also looked at other socioeconomic, demographic, and health characteristics of the respondents and found that:

  • Mothers aged 25 to 29 were significantly less likely to frequently share a bed than those aged 15 to 24
  • Mothers with lower annual incomes (less than $80,000) and renters were more likely than higher-income households and homeowners to frequently share a bed with their infant
  • Married, single, widowed, separated, or divorced mothers were more likely to bed share than those in common-law relationships.
  • Bed-sharing was the most prevalent in Manitoba, British Columbia, Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut
  • New Brunswick and Quebec had significantly lower rates of bed-sharing

Lastly, the data showed that immigrant mothers were more likely to bed-share with their infants than Canadian-born mothers.

“Infants of mothers born in Asia or in South or Central America and the Caribbean had higher odds of bed-sharing than those whose mothers were born in North America,” the study wrote. “Consistent with previous studies these findings suggest that cultural background may play a role in the decision to bed-share.”

There were no significant differences in who was more likely to bed-share when it came to household education, main source of household income, or Indigenous identity, according to the findings.

In conclusion, the study’s authors said they hope the data will help inform future policies and programs on safe sleep practices for infants.

“Future research could look at changes in the prevalence of bed-sharing over time, examine types of bed-sharing surfaces, assess overcrowding as a possible reason for bed-sharing, and further investigate reasons for not bed-sharing among the group who never did so,” the study said.

The study was published in Health Reports on Wednesday.