Weeks before our baby boy was born I had set up and decorated his crib, eager and ready to put our happily sleeping newborn in the cosy space I had created for him. After a difficult and very long birth, I held my perfect, sleeping baby in my hospital room and gently placed him into the plastic cot next to my bed, ready to get a few hours of shut-eye myself. The minute I closed my eyes, however, my tiny little boy let out a cry that ripped my heart in two. I quickly pulled him back into my arms, wedged him in between the nursing pillow and both of us dozed in and out of sleep for the rest of the night. Suddenly, the cozy crib that I had set up for him seemed huge and cold and it just felt right to have him cuddled up with me. Even after all I read about safe sleep habits and the dangers of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), having my son in my arms seemed to be the only way that any of us were getting any sleep.
For the record, I don't think that the method of co-sleeping that we practiced for the first week or so was the safest and I would strongly suggest against sleeping with your baby on your chest. I was not prepared for the situation in which I found myself and was desperate to get a few hours of sleep. This sleep solution didn't work for us and we eventually transferred him to a bassinet just next to our bed until he was about 4 months old.
Co-sleeping, or more specifically, bed-sharing, is a rather hot topic in the world of parenting philosophies as many worry that it will ruin your relationship with your partner, that you are creating an overly dependent, spoiled baby, and most importantly, that there is a high risk of suffocation. This is hard to argue when organisations like the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) state that letting your baby sleep in your bed greatly increases the risk of SIDS.
Co-sleeping, however, doesn't have to mean bed-sharing. Essentially, co-sleeping is any arrangement in which the baby sleeps in close proximity to the mother, whether this means that the baby sleeps in the bed with her, in a co-sleeper attached at one side to the mother's bed, a bassinet where baby is at arm's reach from Mama or in their own bed in the same room. Whatever the configuration, remember that no one knows your baby better than you and what you believe is right for your family might be very different from what others choose and that is more than OK.
There are many benefits of co-sleeping and can be safe and a lovely way to bond with your new baby and get some sleep in the first few weeks, if practiced correctly:
1. Co-sleeping can benefit both mom and baby
Sleeping in close proximity to your baby could actually be a way of reducing SIDS. Your baby biologically syncs his breath patterns to yours if he is close enough. This could actually promote stable and healthy breathing habits in your newborn. Newborns also regulate their temperature to their mothers and are warmer when sleeping next to you reducing the risk of overheating or any significant drop in body temperature.
Additionally, newborns often give off cues and signals when something is not right. A mother within arm's reach to her baby will be able to sense and notice these issues before they become life-threatening, effectively reducing the risk of SIDS.
2. Co-sleeping is natural
In the early weeks after birth, babies require the smell of their mother, touch, sounds and movement in order to feel secure. It is impossible to give a baby too much contact or affection and studies have shown that without these sensations a baby will revert to their primary survival response of crying, therefore producing the stress hormone, cortisol, in attempt to get their mother's attention. Co-sleeping is the embodiment of our human need for infant-parent closeness and a baby who sleeps in proximity to their parents is reassured by the continual reminders of their presence.
3. Co-Sleeping promotes breastfeeding
This proximity also supports breastfeeding. Not only is it practical for the mother to night-feed by simply rolling over and pulling her baby to her to feed (a huge help for c-section Mamas!), the smell, movement and feeling of having her baby nearby sends cues to her body that promotes a healthy milk supply.
4. Co-Sleeping promotes healthy sleep
Infants who sleep with their mothers and breastfeed spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep which is thought to be physiologically more natural and conductive to safe sleep for babies. It is easier to be aroused in these stages than in the deeper stages of sleep which can terminate apneas and potentially protect those babies born with arousal deficiencies. This is suspected to be a major component in SIDS. The natural movements of the mother during sleep combined with the scents of her milk are thought to keep the baby in the lighter stages of sleep for a longer period of time, allowing both mother and baby to get the sleep they need.
5. Co-Sleeping promotes development
Many worry that once you start sleeping with your baby, that you will continue this habit forever. Studies have shown that elevated levels of cortisol can actually cause social attachment disorders and the energy lost in crying could hinder growth and brain development. Babies who co-sleep are much less likely to cry themselves to sleep (or even at all!) and they can then focus their energy on physical and emotional development. It has been shown that by giving these babies the warmth and security that they crave, they often grow up to be less fearful and more independent children.
A NOTE ABOUT SAFETY
As both a postpartum doula and a sleep consultant, I find myself in a difficult position. The risks of bed-sharing are too great to ignore and I firmly stand by the AAP against it. That said, many parents (like me!) find themselves with babies who will only sleep with maternal contact and what is one to do? Pediatrician blogger Dr. Melissa Arca has, what I view, as the best expert advice I can find in her interview on The Science of Mom:
One thing parents should know is that bed sharing cannot be an afterthought nor an act of desperation…this is very dangerous. Safe bed sharing is really an overhaul of the whole sleep environment. You cannot simply take your baby and put him/her in your bed without any preparation. So parents really have to be committed to it and be willing to take the proper safety precautions.
If you are going to co-sleep with your newborn, there are certain guidelines to practice to be sure that you are not putting your little one in any danger. There are some really wonderful co-sleepers that provide a safe sleep environment for your little one while keeping them at arm's reach to Mama throughout the night. Some of my favorites are below:
If you are going to be bed-share with your little one, I urge you to follow La Leche League's Safe Sleep Seven rules to make bed sharing as safe as possible. Make sure that there are no loose blankets on the bed, that the bed is pushed flush up against the wall and that baby is not swaddled or dressed too warmly.
Everyone's situation is different and there is no one sleep solution that works for every family. Co-sleeping can be a natural, comforting way to bond with your baby and promote healthy sleep habits if it is practiced safely and if it works for you, then it is right for your family!