September is Baby Safety Month, and we thought it would be helpful to address a hot topic in parenting: cosleeping.
Public health professionals warn against all cosleeping and many parents plan never to share a bed with their newborns. The reality is that, in spite of their intentions, many families do cosleep, at least some of the time, as a way to manage the middle of the night feeding challenge. Whether you research the subject and determine that cosleeping is a part of your parenting plan, or you plan not to, it is imperative that parents know how to cosleep safely.
What is Co-Sleeping?
At its simplest, cosleeping is the practice of sharing a sleep space with your child. While many people might use the terms cosleeping and bed-sharing interchangeably, they are actually not synonymous. Cosleeping can mean room-sharing, where the infant sleeps in the same room as the caregiver(s), but not in the same bed. It can also mean fixing a bassinet to the side of the bed so the baby is close, but not actually in the same bed. Each of these methods of cosleeping carries different safety considerations, so it's important to understand the distinctions.
Sharing a Bed With Your Baby
Snuggling with your baby builds a strong bond between you and your infant. Early skin-to-skin contact can do even more than this! Studies show it also improves your infant’s physical health as well as boosting his/her intelligence. Sleeping with your baby allows parents and babies to socially, mentally, and physically “attach,” which strengthens your baby’s evolving psychological makeup. Some medical professionals believe that humans are evolutionarily primed to cosleep.
Bedsharing is scientifically proven to be safest for infants who are exclusively breastfed. James Mckenna, the head of the Mother-Baby Sleep Lab at Notre Dame, coined the term “breastsleeping” to refer to this practice; specifically, the practice of bedsharing with a breastfed infant to facilitate nighttime feedings.
Mothers who bed-share while breastfeeding better manage their milk supply, get more sleep, strengthen their attachments, and validate their roles as mothers, especially if working during the day.
Drawing on more than 25 years of research specifically on breastsleeping mother-infant pairs, Mckenna’s data clearly shows the benefits of immediate and sustained contact, including nighttime contact to establish a foundation for optimal infant breastfeeding, neonatal attachment, and brain growth. This new breastsleeping concept highlights the advantages of breastfeeding combined with the attachment and bonding benefits of cosleeping.
Dr. Tracy Cassels, a parenting and sleep consultant at Evolutionary Parenting, postures the following: “For the vast majority of history, women have been cosleeping, or bed-sharing, with their infants. When hunter-gatherer tribes were the norm for human society, sleeping with an infant was a necessity.”
As one mother puts it: "The bonding experience of bed-sharing was very sweet. I stopped after four weeks because while the baby was sleeping soundly, I was not. I wasn’t sleeping very well because I was afraid. Afraid that I would roll over on him, afraid that he was under the blankets, just constantly waking up worried that he was in danger.”
Co-Sleeping and SIDS
Many people, parents and professionals alike, mistakenly cite high rates of Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) as a reason to avoid cosleeping. In reality, according to Mckenna’s research, breastsleeping in a safe sleep space can be protective against SIDS because the baby is being watched by an attentive adult, whose proximity also stimulates healthy breathing and sleep cycles. SIDS, by definition, denotes an unknown cause of death, but cosleeping deaths are mainly caused by accidental suffocation from sleeping in a hazardous environment.
Corresponding with the instances of cosleeping-related deaths, there is an important distinction between forced cosleeping and cosleeping by choice.
Many people do not make the decision to co-sleep, instead they're forced to do so by environmental and financial factors. If someone only has one bedroom and one bed, they are likely to put the baby in their bed by default, and probably don't have access to the resources that teach how to cosleep safely. This skews the number of cosleeping deaths way up, when the reality is that infant death in safe, intentional cosleeping setups is extremely rare.
How to Create a Safe Cosleeping Space
The safest place to sleep with your baby is in your bed. Cosleeping on couches, futons, armchairs, or other furniture is extremely hazardous. An infant can easily become become trapped in between cushions.
Normal adult beds can also be hazardous, but there are ways to ensure a safe space for your infant to sleep. Push the bed away from the walls or headboards, so there are no gaps the baby could fall into. Remove heavy, plush blankets and stick with a light sheet and thin duvet. Do not have any stuffed animals, pets, or other children in the bed with you. If the bed is tall, set the mattress on the floor or on a low bedframe. The breastfeeding mother is the only person who should be sleeping directly beside the baby. When sleeping, make sure the baby’s head is not near the pillows, where suffocation can occur, but close to the mother’s chest instead. This also makes it easier to breastfeed during the night without much disturbance.
Other important safety factors:
Babies should always be sleeping on their backs.
Bedsharing is safest for babies who are mainly breastfed.
Do not use drugs or alcohol if you are bedsharing.
Do not bedshare if you smoke at any point during the day.
Do not bedshare on a waterbed or particularly soft mattress.
Be cautious of heavy, loose pajamas that could obstruct the baby’s face.
If you can’t commit to creating a safe bedsharing environment every night, you can also reap many of the benefits of cosleeping by keeping the baby’s crib in your room, or by attaching a cosleeping device to the side of your bed.
Intentional, Supportive Touch
Pediatric research uniformly advocates for intentional touch and physical bonding between parent and child, and agree that parents should do this as much as possible.
Intentional touch is touching an infant as an act of nurturing (i.e., not just diaper changes, feeding, or for other various medical procedures). This includes direct skin-to-skin contact. Dr. Natalie Maitre of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio says that “intentional supportive touch,” is “absolutely crucial to babies’ developing brains.” She explains that for infants, touch is the one of the first senses that develops, before hearing or sight, therefore making it the “building block in early infancy of communication.”
Newborn development, especially in the first few months, is heavily shaped by touch and sound, as the visual system is still very immature. Touch is a way for infants to learn about their surroundings and an early way to communicate with their parents. Cosleeping, particularly bed-sharing, is an excellent way to incorporate intentional touch into your day.
A Parent's Guide to Co-Sleeping
Platypus Media offers a helpful guide for parents who co-sleep or who are considering co-sleeping. 'Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent's Guide to Co-sleeping' educates, informs, reassures, and defends the potential benefits of co-sleeping and how to do it safely. It is available on our website.
Create the Right Sleeping Environment for You and Your Infant
The majority of parents agree that one size does not fit all babies. "After having three children," says one Tennessee mother, "I have learned that you have to do whatever is necessary to help your children sleep." For many parents, that means changing the game plan. According to recent research, only 11 percent of moms actually planned to co-sleep with their babies, but a whopping 42 percent ended up doing so once their little bundles of joy arrived. There is no right or wrong way to decide where your baby will sleep, as long as safety of the infant (and the health and sanity of the parents) remains everyone's top priority.
Note: This article is meant to be informative in nature, but shouldn’t be taken as medical advice or take the place of medical advice from a trained professional. Consult with a qualified medical provider before modifying your child’s existing sleep routine. If you feel you or your baby may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see a healthcare provider.