I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about co-sleeping for a while now, to share our experiences and what I’ve found out since having Luna. It seems to be something which isn’t openly discussed very much, and which many new parents are reluctant to admit to.
Firstly, to clarify what I am talking about; the term ‘co-sleeping’ really just refers to having your baby in the same room as you, which it is advised you do up to at least 6 months old. For some that will mean their baby is in a cot or crib in the room with them, for some perhaps a ‘sidecar’ type crib which attaches to the bed, and for some it will mean having their baby in bed with them. It is this last arrangement, bed-sharing, which I want to discuss.
Did you recoil at the thought of sharing a bed with a baby? If you did then you are exactly like I was before Luna came along. I knew people did it, I knew it was advised against by the NHS and I knew that it was something I would never do. Well, what did I know?! Three months later and I am confidently sharing the bed with Luna and enjoying the experience!
I didn’t know anything about bed-sharing before Luna was born. We were told, by books and antenatal classes, that we should place our new baby at the end of the Moses basket or cot, tuck them up and watch them sleep. Easy… well, not so easy. After a blissful first night where we smugly thought to ourselves ‘this isn’t that hard’, Luna quickly decided basket-life was not for her. Nor was cot-life, crib-life or anywhere-away-from-mum-or-dad-life!
I am breastfeeding, which is something else I didn’t have much prior knowledge of before Luna’s arrival, and I didn’t realise just how frequently Luna might want to feed in the early days, or know about the special relationship that can exist between breastfeeding and bed-sharing. After a week or so of struggling to get Luna to settle in her basket, and startling awake to realise I’d yet again fallen asleep with her on my chest, desperately trying to stay awake during night feeds and worried – really worried – that she’d slip and suffocate, I knew there had to be a better way. Could bed-sharing be it?
Fortunately a friend with a new baby born a month before Luna had already told me that she was bed-sharing with her daughter, so I was able to ask her for some more information. At this point I still thought it was something that only the odd renegade mum did (as much as I love and respect my friend!) I didn’t realise how common it actually is. As I began to speak to other mums, my friends and family, the more people told me that they too had shared the bed with their baby at some point or other. Why did no one tell me this before?! In fact almost every single mum I spoke to about it said it was something they had done too! I learned that the latest research has at least 50% of breastfeeding mothers sharing the bed with their baby at some point, and that in the majority of the world it’s the norm. At our NCT reunion when I spoke to our antenatal teacher about it she told me that she had shared the bed with all 4 of her children, although of course, that’s not something she could have told us before. But I wish she had.
So why the big secrecy? There have been several stories in the media about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in relation to co-sleeping, which understandably strike fear into the hearts of parents. But these are often unbalanced and, from the research I have found, have nearly always involved another risk factor – such as a parent drinking or smoking for example. Did you know that Japan has the lowest incidence of SIDS globally, and yet bed-sharing is standard there?
As I began to research and read about bed-sharing I discovered not only how common it is, but also very clear guidelines on how to do it safely. I found that very often the statistics quoted which show a higher risk associated with co-sleeping include instances of shared sleeping on sofas (a far riskier place to sleep with a baby), and where other risk factors were also present. In one eye-opening article I read how a study recorded seven incidents where SIDS had occurred after mothers had moved to the sofa from the bed because of the fear of bed sharing, not knowing that the sofa holds a much, much higher risk factor than the bed. If so many new parents are doing it anyway shouldn’t we be educating people on the safest way to do it, rather than withholding that information in place of a blanket warning not to?
I also learned of the magical, biological synergy that occurs between a breastfeeding mum and her baby when sleeping next to one another. The child’s breathing and temperature are regulated by her mother’s, and mums are found to stir and wake just moments before their baby does (something I’ve witnessed night after night with Luna.) I also found that around the world mothers instinctively protect their sleeping baby by adopting a C-shaped position. I was amazed when I saw an illustration of this as, without any instruction, it was how I had been sleeping too. One of the best comments I read about co-sleeping was that evolutionarily your baby is wired the same as they were thousands of years ago, they don’t know it’s the 21st century, or that there isn’t a sabre toothed tiger waiting around the corner to gobble them up! Human babies have evolved to need the close care and protection of their parents. This is why so many new babies just won’t settle away from mum or dad.
Bed-sharing in this way has meant I can feed Luna in the side-lying position, nursing her to sleep and then quickly falling to sleep myself. I would like to continue to breastfeed Luna for as long as she wants to, and studies have shown that breastfeeding mums who bed-share typically continue their breastfeeding journey for longer. Part of this must be because it is just so much easier at night to breastfeed the baby who is already laying right next to your boob! Often times now I’ll wake just as Luna is stirring, position everything where it needs to be for her to feed, and she’ll have a drink and be asleep again without waking up fully. I don’t need to try and move her, or myself, very much at all. Breast milk digests quickly and most babies will wake several times during the night for a feed; I would be getting so much less sleep if Luna was not right there next to me.
And then there is just the sheer, utter, unadulterated wonder of sleeping next to your baby. Waking to the smell of their newborn-baby head, to the sight of their perfect, perfect face and the warmth of their little body. For all the other reasons I’m ok with bed-sharing, this has got to be the best one and I’m trying hard not to wish these days away. Because we won’t bed-share forever, Luna will, at some point, move into her own space. And I know that when that time comes I’ll no doubt look back on these days wistfully.
I wish that more new parents really had the facts about co-sleeping, and not just the Daily Fail type headlines. I wish I had known more about it before Luna got here, so that I hadn’t had to go through that fearful, guilt-ridden few weeks to begin with. I wish our NCT and NHS antenatal classes had told us how to bed-share safely, rather than just not to do it at all.
There will still be people who feel uncomfortable about bed-sharing, which is totally fine. As with everything I’ve learned about parenthood so far, you have to follow your own instincts about that is right for you and your baby. This probably isn’t for everyone. But I do wish we could do away with the stigma of co-sleeping and bed-sharing so that for those parents who would like to consider it, and for those babies who are literally crying out for it, it can be done safely and confidently.
Here are some really fantastic resources I found when learning more about co-sleeping. I’d really urge anyone to find out the facts and make your own educated judgement about bed-sharing.
- This podcast is excellent, featuring an interview with Helen Ball, who is Professor of Anthropology , and Director of the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab at Durham University, UK — and Chair of the Scientific Committee for the Lullaby Trust (UK SIDS Charity)
- James McKenna is a world leader in mother-baby sleep research from Notre Dame University. Find out about his research and work on this website.
- This interview with McKenna for the Huffington Post is excellent too: My Conversation With Co-Sleeping Expert James McKenna
- This article he wrote is also really thorough and is a great place to start: Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone
- The Infant Sleep Information Source is run in association with the Durham University sleep lab and is a great place to find research based advice and information. They also have an app you can download.
- This article in Nature journal is very informative: Evolution-informed maternal–infant health
- Download the safe sleep guidelines from La Leche League here.
- Finally, you’ll find lots of helpful information about breastfeeding and a section about co-sleeping on the Kellymom website.