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.
- 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.
- C. Richard et al., “Sleeping Position, Orientation, and Proximity in Bedsharing Infants and Mothers,” Sleep 19 (1996): 667-684.
- Touch in Early Development, T. Field, ed. (Mahway, New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum and Assoc., 1995).
- “SIDS Global Task Force Child Care Study” E.A.S. Nelson et al., Early Human Development 62 (2001): 43-55
- 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.
- D. P. Davies, “Cot Death In Hong Kong: A Rare Problem?” The Lancet 2 (1985): 1346-1348.
- N. P. Lee et al., “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in Hong Kong: Confirmation of Low Incidence,” British Medical Journal 298 (1999): 72.
- S. Fukai and F. Hiroshi, “1999 Annual Report, Japan SIDS Family Association,” Sixth SIDS International Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, 2000.
- E. A. S. Nelson et al., “International Child Care Practice Study: Infant Sleeping Environment,” Early Human Development 62 (2001): 43-55.
- 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.
- SIDS book, page 227, #162
- 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.
- 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.
- J. F. Forbes et al., “The Cosleeping Habits of Military Children,” Military Medicine 157 (1992): 196-200.
- D. A. Drago and A. L. Dannenberg, “Infant Mechanical Suffocation Deaths in the United States, 1980-1997,” Pediatrics 103, no. 5 (1999): e59.
- 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