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Co-sleeping – if you do it properly it IS safe

If you read the press, talk to your Health Visitor, talk to your parents, the chances are that everyone has told you that co-sleeping/bed sharing/sleep sharing/family bed is Not Safe and You Must Not Sleep With Your Baby.

If you talk to parents in the real world, living real lives you’ll generally find that they have co-slept at some point or wish they could but don’t know how.

If they have co-slept, generally they will tell you that it got them through and it meant they got more sleep.  Most will have only given it a go through desperation after a multitude of broken nights.

But if you are going to co-sleep, you do have to do it properly.

  • Not after drinking
  • Not after drugs
  • Not after pills that might make you super drowsy
  • Not if you’re so exhausted you’ll sleep through anything (if this is the case give the baby to your partner for 3 hours and get a decent rest and then give it a whirl

You’ll need to do a quick check of your bed

  • Don’t use a water bed (does anyone anymore?)
  • Move the pillows up and away so they’re nowhere near the baby
  • Keep the duvet under the baby so they can’t be smothered
  • Make sure there isn’t a space where the baby could slip into between a bed and a wall

My biggest worry was always that I’d roll onto them.  In fact, if you’re breastfeeding, you really aren’t likely to roll onto them.  Dr Williams Sears observed his wife and baby co-sleeping and discovered that firstly the mum instinctively moves less and stays curled around her baby and secondly that baby and mum mimic each other’s behaviours.  He also conducted an experiment to study two of his children whilst co-sleeping and sleeping on their own, discovering that in fact their breathed better when in the family bed.

I found that when co-sleeping I would barely move – that I’d be curled up with my baby nose to nipple, and that all we’d do was swap sides from time to time.  I wouldn’t have to fully wake to breastfeed, to check on her and that she slept materially better.

Our co-sleeping story is fairly typical.

I’d resisted trying it with the first because it was Not Safe.  And instead ended up falling asleep with her on my chest in bed because I was too tired and then woken up in a panic.

So I looked into what co-sleeping involved and the research around whether it was Not Safe and discovered how to do it properly.

From the four month horror growth spurt we regularly co-slept with Big coming into our bed when she first woke in the night. Once I was back at work co-sleeping was the only option to ensure I got some sleep at all..

When Not-so-big arrived and was obviously going to need to stay close we co-slept.  Firstly through our days of baby mooning and then during the night.  Thanks to co-sleeping I managed to get some sleep and whilst I was a zombie I was at least a functioning zombie!  Given our concerns over her breathing (she occasionally seemed to forget to take a breath in) and her need to grow quickly, all of the research suggested that staying close was the right thing to do.  In fact I believe she breathed better when lying close to me and her reflux seemed less violent with her lying propped up slightly on my upper arm and having lots of smaller feeds throughout the night.

Ok so how exactly do we do it?

Apologies for the rather rubbish diagrams but these seemed the easiest way to show you what we did.

Baby lower down than you’d think – head and boob roughly in line.

Pillows wide apart and held back by my underneath arm.

Baby in a sleeping bag on top of the duvet so they don’t get too hot or risk getting caught up in the covers.

Mum with her bottom half under the covers and a big, warm cardigan or jumper to stop her getting cold.

Mum cuddled around baby and usually touching her with the top arm.

And here’s what its like when they get older…

And now for the science – if you’d like to read around the subject, here are the key scientific conclusions but don’t believe me, go and read the actual reports.

Babies sleep more peacefully
Research shows that co-sleeping infants virtually never startle during sleep and rarely cry during the night, compared to solo sleepers who startle repeatedly throughout the night and spend 4 times the number of minutes crying 1. Startling and crying releases adrenaline, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, interferes with restful sleep and leads to long term sleep anxiety.

Babies have a more stable physiology
Studies show that infants who sleep near to parents have more stable temperatures 2, regular heart rhythms, and fewer long pauses in breathing compared to babies who sleep alone 3. This means baby sleeps physiologically safer.

Co-sleeping decreases risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
Worldwide research shows that the SIDS rate is lowest (and even unheard of) in countries where co-sleeping is the norm, rather than the exception 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Babies who sleep either in or next to their parents’ bed have a fourfold decrease in the chance of SIDS 10. Co-sleeping babies actually spend more time sleeping on their back or side 1 which decreases the risk of SIDS. Further research shows that the carbon dioxide exhaled by a parent actually works to stimulate baby’s breathing 11.

Co-sleeping benefits long term emotional health
Co-sleeping babies grow up with a higher self-esteem, less anxiety, become independent sooner, are better behaved in school 12, and are more comfortable with affection 13. They also have less psychiatric problems 14.

Co-sleeping is safer than crib sleeping
The Consumer Product Safety Commission published data that described infant fatalities in adult beds. These same data, however, showed more than 3 times as many crib related infant fatalities compared to adult bed accidents 15. Another recent large study concluded that bed sharing did NOT increase the risk of SIDS, unless the mom was a smoker or abused alcohol 16.

  1. McKenna, J., et al, “Experimental studies of infant-parent co-sleeping: Mutual physiological and behavioral influences and their relevance to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).” Early Human Development 38 (1994)187-201.
  2. C. Richard et al., “Sleeping Position, Orientation, and Proximity in Bedsharing Infants and Mothers,” Sleep 19 (1996): 667-684.
  3. Touch in Early Development, T. Field, ed. (Mahway, New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum and Assoc., 1995).
  4. “SIDS Global Task Force Child Care Study” E.A.S. Nelson et al., Early Human Development 62 (2001): 43-55
  5. A. H. Sankaran et al., “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Infant Care Practices in Saskatchewan, Canada,” Program and Abstracts, Sixth SIDS International Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, February 8-11, 2000.
  6. D. P. Davies, “Cot Death In Hong Kong: A Rare Problem?” The Lancet 2 (1985): 1346-1348.
  7. N. P. Lee et al., “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in Hong Kong: Confirmation of Low Incidence,” British Medical Journal 298 (1999): 72.
  8. S. Fukai and F. Hiroshi, “1999 Annual Report, Japan SIDS Family Association,” Sixth SIDS International Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, 2000.
  9. E. A. S. Nelson et al., “International Child Care Practice Study: Infant Sleeping Environment,” Early Human Development 62 (2001): 43-55.
  10. P. S. Blair, P. J. Fleming, D. Bensley, et al., “Where Should Babies Sleep – Along or With Parents? Factors Influencing the Risk Of SIDS in the CESDI Study,” British Medical Journal 319 (1999): 1457-1462.
  11. SIDS book, page 227, #162
  12. P. Heron, “Non-Reactive Cosleeping and Child Behavior: Getting a Good Night’s Sleep All Night, Every Night,” Master’s thesis, Department of Psychology, University of Bristol, 1994.
  13. M. Crawford, “Parenting Practices in the Basque Country: Implications of Infant and Childhood Sleeping Location for Personality Development” Ethos 22, no 1 (1994): 42-82.
  14. J. F. Forbes et al., “The Cosleeping Habits of Military Children,” Military Medicine 157 (1992): 196-200.
  15. D. A. Drago and A. L. Dannenberg, “Infant Mechanical Suffocation Deaths in the United States, 1980-1997,” Pediatrics 103, no. 5 (1999): e59.
  16. R. G. Carpenter et al., “Sudden Unexplained Infant Death in 20 Regions in Europe: Case Control Study,” Lancet 2004; 363: 185-191.

With thanks to Dr Williams Sears

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27 comments to Co-sleeping – if you do it properly it IS safe

  • Jem

    >LOL loved the second picture – it's so true!

    We started co-sleeping before the end of week 2 and it was probably one of the best parenting decisions my partner and I made.

    We've had some difficult nights this past week or so (9 month regression) and I think I'd be dead on my feet without bedsharing!

  • randine

    >Yes, thanks for this. I took a lot of flack for co sleeping with my breastfeeding baby- well, first of all, for breastfeeding him in the first place "You should get that baby on the bottle so you can get some proper rest!!"
    Argh.
    My kids outgrew co sleeping on their own and now they have great sleep habits. I was threatened with "you will never get them out of your bed!", and of course, the vieled smothering threat- "what if… something happens…

  • Whimsical Wife

    >I did co-sleeping with both children and they've both turned out alright 😉

  • cartside

    >You've done your homework!
    Both illustrations are very familiar. Second one ended my willingness to cosleep 😉

    I didn't cosleep in the first few weeks and regularly fell asleep while nursing baby sitting on the bed ledge. I once almost dropped her, then fed lying down which developed naturally into cosleeping. I was always super careful and never felt it was unsafe (provided that the safety points are covered).

  • Paula

    >LOL at your diagrams! I have co-slept with all of mine, and yes it's probably a contributory factor in why at the ages of 8,5 and 4 they still often (every day) come to our bed in the morning and regularly sleep with us when they're poorly or a little bit spooked about something but I don't have an issue with that.

    With my first I had the cradle right next to the bed but as he got larger it put increasing strain on my back as I leant over to pick him up and deposit him back after a feed. Becoming more relaxed about sleeping arrangements made me more relaxed about feeding as well and night feeds could almost happen without my knowledge IYSWIM.

    We were flexible and I think that's the key. The cot was there to use if it felt right but co-sleeping was equally acceptable. We all slept better as a result – even now, if I curl up with the 4yo to read a bedtime story in her bed I am almost guaranteed to fall asleep. I would recommend it to everyone.

  • drop4three

    >We laughed out loud at the second diagram – so very true with me falling out of the bed as the little one gravitates towards me in the night. She did sleep so much better though.

    With her severe eczema, we'd never have survived the first 12 months without co-sleeping so we could stop her tearing herself to pieces with the scratching. Hard times, but safe times.

    Great post.

  • Anonymous

    >Well researched post and I couldn't agree more with what you say about co-sleeping.

    Not sure why parents are so nervous about it.

    Also, why does our culture insist on our baby's sleeping in a room on their own? It just never seemed right to me and our little one slept with us in our room until about 6 months ago and he is two and a half now – in his own room – but still reguarly sleeps with us! 🙂

  • Expat mum

    >I have a minor problem with your second diagram. You left out the pointy little toenails and the scratch marks on my, I mean, your back!

  • A Modern Mother

    >I love your diagrams, that is so you! Thankfully we are passed the co-sleeping stage. Had to comment on the water bed though … do they still exist????

  • Sarah (Chez Lee)

    >Love your diagrams and that's exactly what I am doing now! I found a great breast feeding under top with holes where they need to be but the rest of the top keeps my tummy warm when I have to lift up my over top to feed.

    Always great to read posts like this as there is still so much disapproval generally. I didn't do this with my first child for this reason, but did feed to sleep and then moved her to a double futon at 18 months to read/cuddle/parent to sleep.

    With my second and third children I did away with the cot entirely and all much happier x

  • Emma

    >This is a fantastic post! I never even attempted it with Oli when he was born because I was always told it was something that I should never do. It's only now a year+ on that I've realised it can be a safe option and this post confirms that. I wish there were not such strict guidelines put in place when babies are born.. I could of done so much more if it wasnt for those rules.

  • imperfectpages

    >You know what I love about this post? It's not just that you've talked openly about parenting choices that some might frown on, but that you've presented so much research in an accessible way. You've gone to great effort to inform other women and empower them to make the right choice for their families, and I think that's brilliant.

    Signed: a happy co-sleeper.

  • Kelly

    >Thank you so much for this, it really makes things clearer. I am happier to have Piran asleep in our bed now he is older but when he was a baby this would have been so helpful.

  • Noble Savage

    >This is one of the best posts on co-sleeping I've ever read. Well done you! I'll be showing this to my doula clients who are considering co-sleeping. Fantastic diagrams, I wish I could draw stick figures as well as you!

  • BECKICKLESIE

    >A really informative piece of writing. Thanks for posting. I will share with other mums.

    LOVE THE TODDLER PIC!

    Becca

    http://beckicklesie.blogspot.com

  • The Contented? Maybe.

    >My first baby is due in October, and I've not yet made a decision re co-sleeping. This has been a great help, thanks. Do you think, however, that the transition from co-sleeping to cot is more difficult than it would be from a moses basket (next to parents' bed)?

  • ebabeelikes

    >I just did it despite hearing everywhere that I shouldn't. I did it because it felt right, because i just couldn't leave her in her cot because that seemed wrong for her and me. Sometimes I am brave enough to just follow my instinct – this was one of those times. But more often than not, I don't.

  • M Clement Hall

    >This is a dangerous posting and likely to be the cause of a child's death.
    Any search through Google will show reports EVERY DAY that co-sleeping causes deaths, The Bible knew it! There's nothing new about it!!

  • Muddling Along Mummy

    >M Clement Hall – I suggest you read the research and the guidelines. Done incorrectly co-sleeping is dangerous but the research bears me out that done correctly and safely it is as least as safe if not safer than having your baby in a cot PLUS has added benefits in terms of maternal rest and promoting the breastfeeding relationship

    I do not find shroud waving or obscure and inaccurate references to the bible part of a constructive and adult debate.

  • Kate

    >I think this is a fantastic post! So many new mums (and dads) want to co-sleep but are terrified to do it because of all the negative press.

    You've shown, with sense and by following the guidelines that it's comforting for the baby and the mum and it's natural. I'm sure cots weren't always around!

    And the 2nd picture is hilarious!! And SO true!

    XxxX

  • Cass@TheDiaryofaFrugalFamily

    >Mine are past this stage now although I often wake up to find my five year old has got into bed with us in the middle of the night – usually because he went to the toilet in our en suite and couldn't be bothered to go back to his own room.

    I love to snuggle into him for a bit before sending him on his way 😉

    I was put off co-sleeping by the midwife and health visitor when mine were little but now I feel like I missed out a bit and I would have loved to try it.

  • Love this article, just read it all properly after giggling at the pictures (which are spot in, by the way!). I’m a first time mum and used to be so scared about co-sleeping I didn’t do it until baby was about 5 months old. He mostly sleeps in his cot even now except for bad teething nights and then he sleeps with us. Someone above has made a thought provoking comment.. Why is it just us hung up about co-sleeping, when it’s done all over the world as a norm.

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