If anthropological evidence on infant sleep and development were integrated and used as a starting point to inform infant sleep research, there is no doubt that the question we would be asking is not if it is safe for an infant to sleep next to its breast feeding mother, but rather, is it safe not to!
-McKenna and McDade (2005)
I have written about co-sleeping before, but never here. But after overhearing someone spewing the idea that babies need to be sleep-trained, because (goddamn it!) they are manipulating us. Yes. In 2013. Someone was actually saying this. Apparently no amount of the hot-off-the-press and well-vetted science on affect, attachment and emotional mental health is adequate for folks to realize that this isn’t the case. Infants have an absolute NEED to be cared for, not just during the day, when it is convenient for us, but constantly. They have an innate need to be nurtured, held, loved and treated with respect. No matter what time of day or night it is. And for some babies and families, this means getting over the anti co-sleeping folktales, and acknowledging the statistics, science and experiences that make co-sleeping a safe and remarkably useful sleeping situation.
Co-sleeping can take many forms. Not all kiddos are comfortable with the close contact of bed-sharing. Some need a side-car (where a crib is attached safely to the parent’s sleeping surface), others prefer a bassinet or crib that is placed next to their parent, where they can touch and see their parents easily. For any number of reasons, a family may not choose the ‘king-sized’ family bed on the floor version of co-sleeping. But that’s ok! Any number of situations can offer massive benefits to the infant and the parents.
You know what isn’t ok? When I hear mothers saying that they want to co-sleep. That they know that they would get more sleep, that their baby would get more restful sleep, and that they would just feel better if they could sleep with their babies. So many of these mamas confide that their co-parent isn’t comfortable with co-sleeping as a practice. The number one comment I hear from mothers is that their partner worries about ‘rolling’ on the baby. Go sleep on the couch. The health, well-being and nighttime bonding and/or breastfeeding relationship of mother and child is worth a great deal more than the unfounded and ungrounded concerns of a partner.
This sounds like I had a cup of misandry with my lunch today doesn’t it? I am not apologizing though. I tire of hearing this song from so many mothers who know intuitively that their infant would benefit from co-sleeping to only be stymied, weighed down with guilt, or bullied by a co-parent. These uncertain partners need to educate themselves about the statistics. They need to commit to safe sleeping conditions, and when they can’t: they need to find another space to sleep for the night.
The benefits of co-sleeping are many. They include:
- Better sleep for mother and child (Gordon & Hill, 2005).
- Easier nighttime breastfeeding
- An ability to bond during nighttime parenting, as parents respond with respect and gentleness
- An infant that is emotionally secure, confident and attached because their needs are being met with consistency
- An infant that is better able to function during waking hours because they are getting more sleep at night
- Mother is able establish a better breast milk supply (if she is breastfeeding)
- Co-parents and working mothers can use co-sleeping as a chance to reconnect with their babes
- A decreased risk of SIDS
There are many ways to make your co-sleeping experience safe and more comfortable for everyone. Here are a few of the things that I have done/do now, that help us reap the biggest benefits from co-sleeping.
- When co-sleeping with an infant, the sleeping space should be free of billowing blankets, pillows and stuffed animals. The bed should be flat. Avoid sleeping on sofas or chairs with your infant.
- Ideally the bed should be pushed flush against a wall or a bed-rail should be installed. When Aodhan was newborn he slept on my right side, just slightly below my armpit.
- At no time should a parent enter a co-sleeping space if she or he has been drinking, doing drugs, or even smoking. All of these extracurricular activities inhibit your ability to respond to an infant.
- When my baby began to roll, I dropped the bed to the floor and stored the rails until he was 2 years old (at which time I installed a child-safety rail on his side of the bed).
There is no reason why a child needs to transition to a different sleeping space when she goes from infant to toddler. Of course, if a toddler or parent desire this than it should be done in a way that extends the gentle approach that is embedded in co-sleeping: by responding with respect and love. In transitioning a co-sleeping child to his bed, a parent has to be ready to take things slowly and perhaps in a non-linear path.
Equally, if a child wishes to stay in the family bed and that works for all family members, there is no reason why this can not continue. North American cultural attitudes toward the need for separate spaces for children and adults is linked directly to the consumer-based economy of the last 150 years. The only manipulating that is going on in a parent-infant relationship is from our society. We can love and parent our babies in the ways that make sense for us.
In their 2005 research, McKenna reminds us that “…mother-infant co-sleeping takes different forms worldwide,” an observation that also applies within communities. Not all parents are going to co-sleep in the same way. In fact, a specific family will find that co-sleeping behaviors and experiences change and adapt with time and situation. The way I co-sleep in my house is different to how I co-sleep on holiday. The way I co-slept with Aodhan when he was a newborn is different to how I sleep with him now. Be open to these changes and figure out the safest and most comfortable way to co-sleep with your kiddo. Don’t be pushed around by people who are too lazy to read the research.
Want to read more? Here is a whole pile of articles on co-sleeping.