Co-Sleeping: The Truth Behind
I was six months pregnant, and in New York on holiday with my husband when the words finally flew out of my mouth in conversation. “I will NEVER let our baby sleep in our bed,” the judgmental me, protested. “Our bed is for us, it’s a private thing between a husband and wife. Besides it takes away the romance in the room.” At the time, I assumed I would be the “strong mother,” one who was able to hide biological cues. I was convinced from day one I would be able to place my baby in her crib alone, and be able to battle the crying like a champion. I thought ignorantly, like most first time mothers, that I would be the exception to every stereotype and rule about new mothers.
How did that play out? Well, as the due date approached, suddenly a bassinet found its way onto my baby registry; “just in case”. After my daughter was born, I quickly fell into every mold I thought I wouldn’t. I cried like many mamas, hysterically, the moment I birthed her. I held that little being in my arms that I created, and suddenly I felt so vulnerable. This piece of myself, that I grew for so long and cared for, is now outside of me and exposed to the world. I could no longer keep her safe inside me. I hated putting her down, and all I wanted to do was hold her and snuggle her. It was the best. Then we were discharged from the hospital and the real challenges began. The first car ride where you ride next to them in the backseat. Their first bath by you, in which you struggle with the faucet over the temperature, and shaking, put your little one near water without Doctor supervision. Their first cough, their first sneeze, wheeze, sniffle…. I mean the list goes on. We, as moms, worry like crazy as soon as the soles of our shoes hit the floor inside our house; we become our baby’s mama grizzly. Then there’s the first night of sleep.
There is also the delusional part of you that thinks your baby will be the only newborn on the planet to sleep peacefully through the night; wrong! You place that baby either in their crib or bassinet alone and stare. “Is she breathing?” “Babe, babe….BABE! Wake up! Does she look like she’s breathing?” Then like an idiot, you check, wake the baby up, and have to proceed to put her back to sleep. We didn’t do it then, but a few nights later, she ended up in our bed.
She was only sleeping at about 30 minute intervals in her bassinet, before she would bust lose and scream bloody murder. The first three nights, it was everything I could do to fix it. But by the fourth night, I was beyond exhausted, and breastfeeding was wearing me down. It was 4am and I had barely slept all week, I picked her up, laid her in the bed so she could feed, and fell asleep. We both did. For a FIVE hour stretch! I darted awake recharged and panicked. I didn’t mean to sleep that long, but it felt so right. She was peacefully sleeping, nuzzeled up to my side. Her face looked like an angel, and I never wanted to sleep anywhere else. The next night we repeated, with some added precautions, and slept so much better. It made breastfeeding easier, and myself, the baby, and even my husband started getting more sleep. Why did it feel so perfect and natural, but yet seem like such a bad idea?
So what’s the real truth about co-sleeping with your little one? How common is it? And are there situations in which its okay, and to some, even preferred? Those are the questions I set out to answer, and I believe I can shed some light onto this very taboo topic. I feel the same way about co-sleeping as I do with Victoria secret’s “one-size-fits-all” undies; there is NO way that what works for me would also work for my grandmother. And it turns out, I’m right! After doing some research on my own, I’ve come to understand a few basics things that I think need to be outlined before we go much further.
Firstly, for the purpose of this post, I’m considering co-sleeping to mean bed-sharing. Basically, when you put your baby in the bed to sleep directly next to you. I’m not talking about the bed attachments, and I’m not talking about just sleeping in the same room as your little one. Some consider those to be co-sleeping, and while I do think doing those things are great; that is not what I will be discussing in this post. Just flat out, sleeping in the bed with your baby.
Secondly, I am strictly talking to my exclusively at the breast, breast-feeding mamas here for the purpose of this post. I’m doing this only because the research I’ve done only supports things in certain instances and this happens to be one of them. According to experts, if you bottle feed your baby (even if it’s pumped milk) they should not share a bed with you, but should still room in. And of course, if you smoke or are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, never share a bed with you baby! Just had to throw all that out there.
Okay, so what’s all the hype about co-sleeping and why do we as parents do it, but then feel ashamed when we do? Well most of it comes from what we’ve been taught. Doctors, pediatricians, and those “fun” little baby basics classes we’ve attended religiously, have scared us straight into crib isle at Babies R Us; fearing that we will soon be another statistic if we ever let our littles on our mattress. The truth? The truth here is that most articles I read (I’ll post links below) said or suggested that more babies die each year from sleeping alone, than they do from co-sleeping with a parent. However, our media, as with most things, will demonize the 1% that this may happen to as the golden standard for everyone. They will also jump to accuse a baby’s death as “preventable” when it happens in a co-sleeping environment, but be quick to label SIDS when it happens in a crib. After all, the nickname of of SIDS is “crib death”. Now, this is NOT to say that you are a bad parent or doing something wrong if you do NOT co-sleep. I know lots of my fellow mommy’s who either just don’t feel comfortable with it, or were struggling with postpartum depression, and just didn’t feel that they would be as in tuned to their little one to co-sleep. That’s okay! And in fact, good for you for knowing what’s best for your baby!
On the reverse though, lots of mothers feel perfectly bonded with their babies, and are very in tune with their rhythms, as to keep them safe in a bed-sharing environment. The truth is, that we in the west are the minority when it comes to this belief on co-sleeping. As Dr.James J. McKenna at the University of Notre Dame points out in his article, “Why Babies DO NOT and SHOULD NOT Sleep Alone,” we wouldn’t be here if our ancestral mothers didn’t keep us close and warm and feed us in this manner. It is completely natural, and biological; this is why it feels “right”. He also points out that “In Japan where co-sleeping and breastfeeding (in the absence of maternal smoking) is the cultural norm, rates of the sudden infant death syndrome are the lowest in the world.” Multiple articles I read also discussed how bed-sharing not only promoted breast-feeding, but mothers and babies got more sleep than those parents who didn’t (on average), and it also lead to more stable heart rates and body temperatures. It’s no secret that a mother’s body temperature will rise or fall to accommodate her baby, but it is interesting to note that a baby will naturally gravitate towards a mother’s breast and her warm body. Keeping the two in synch and safely placed together. Infants sleep longer, more peaceful sleep next to their mothers, and it also leads to more feedings throughout the night which can help with long term milk supply.
So if baby and mom both enjoy it, and it benefits them both, where’s the harm? As with anything, a few bad apples always ruin the bunch. The trick here is to remember good bed-sharing etiquette. Don’t over layer your baby when they’re in your bed; the extra body heat could overheat them. Make sure there is safe distance between your partner and the baby, because not all dads feel as “in-tune” with their littles. Don’t have bulky sheets, blankets, pillows around the baby (nothing that the baby could suffocate in). Don’t wear anything with strings, tassels, or little objects that could fall off of them (lingerie, or decorated pjs). Make sure the bed is big enough, and in the same regard make sure you and your partner are small enough. The reality is larger persons may not realize when they are crushing the baby. I would also stay away from bed-sharing if you are suffering from postpartum depression or a very deep sleeper. All in all, be smart about it. I personally can not tell you what that means for your family, but I want to give you the inspiration to be able to go out and investigate for yourselves.
Now I can tell you quite honestly, I’ve yet to fess up to this little habit while at my little one’s doctors. How quickly my resolve seems to dissipate. The reality is, as with most things, modern medicine has not quite caught up to the research.
“I am not alone in thinking this way. The Academy of Breast Feeding Medicine, the USA Breast Feeding Committee, the Breast Feeding section of the American Academy of Pediatrics, La Leche League International, UNICEF and WHO are all prestigious organizations who support bedsharing and which use the best and latest scientific information on what makes mothers and babies safe and healthy. (McKenna) “
You’re not alone in this, we just aren’t talking about it. Most women who are asked, are doing it! It’s my hope that by starting the discussion, we can gain some insight into what works for each of us and how our babies are doing with it. By doing this, hopefully we’ll not only advance this type of holistic research, but also help ourselves and our babies in the process. I did a survey on a Facebook mommy group I belong to and the results were crazy. Out of 73 moms that responded to the poll, 51 admitted to, at some point, bed-sharing with their little one. 38 of those 51 moms said they co-slept 7 days a week all night. So in my survey alone, over half of the moms who answered were bed-sharing, but most commented that it was not something they discussed with others, and jokingly admitting to lying to their pediatricians (myself included).
Mama, your not alone, and you are not a bad parent for sleeping with your baby. You know your little one more than anyone else on the planet. You know what’s safest, and what’s best for your babe; and hey, it just so happens, biology is on your side. If taking your baby into your bed gives you that extra 30 minutes of sleep a night so you can regain your sanity; you go girl! I’m with you. It’s time to put the judgements down and start talking about this. As always, the safest place for baby is in your arms.
I’ll put the links below to a couple great resources on bed-sharing, and where most of my information came from. Please check out Dr. McKenna’s article, he goes in more depth on bed sharing and it’s a very useful and informative article.
But please remember, I’m not a medical professional, and you need to make this call on your own. I’m just here to start the discussion.