It wasn't so much a decision, but something that just happened. There are a lot of things no one ever tells you about newborns, like the fact that they make pterodactyl sounds all night, and sometimes the sounds of all the animals in the zoo. On our second night in the hospital, when I was struggling to nurse my 2 day old baby, the nurse was trying to help and as soon as she positioned him next to me in such a way that he was snuggled up against Mama, we realized quickly that he wasn't hungry, he just wanted to be next to Mama. So starting around weeks 2 and 3 I realized when I couldn't calm him, I just needed to snuggle with him, let him do skin to skin with me, and that usually calmed him. As he became a noisier sleeper, we tried everything--white noise, swaddling, rocking, nothing kept him calm long enough, except when he was laying next to Mama. Per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the safest place for baby to sleep in order to prevent SIDS is on baby's back in her/his own bed in the parents' room. However, cosleeping is common around the world and SIDS is low in cosleeping cultures. This article states that SIDS is lowest in Hong Kong where cosleeping is extremely common. While I am not recommending or encouraging cosleeping, I have come to learn that cosleeping isn't the evil that some make it out to be. In fact, there are benefits to cosleeping and it's important to understand these and the risks so you can make the best decision for your family. Many physicians, scientists, and SIDS researchers even disagree with the AAP's recommendation. Let me share with you why and what I've learned.
As if women need to be judged for another thing, when it comes to motherhood, it seems mommy-shaming is in its own ballpark of women-shaming. And I say mommy-shaming instead of parent-shaming here, because I think mothers bear the brunt of shaming. I don't feel like dad's get judged for cosleeping, or giving their baby bottles right away. Even after that night in the hospital when baby and I essentially first coslept, I felt this need to defend what happened and make sure my friends knew I made sure baby was totally safe, and I hardly slept. I felt this way even with friends who don't judge my decisions. That tells you the toxic depth mommy-shaming goes if we have to defend ourselves from those who aren't even shaming us.
That being said, it's important to educate ourselves on the things we do and don't do as we raise our children, because it encourages open, educated, and thoughtful discussion. If we understood the benefits and natural practice of cosleeping and felt safe speaking about it with our pediatricians, our pediatricians could also guide us on safe sleeping practices whilst cosleeping. That way we're not doing things in secret, shaming ourselves, and potentially missing valuable information that could help us practice safer and better cosleeping, or other child-rearing topics. So, here are some interesting facts and benefits about cosleeping. However, I feel I must re-emphasize that I am not recommending cosleeping to you, I am simply sharing information and my experience. Always do what you feel is best for you and baby and talk to your pediatrician or other appropriate professionals.
Cosleeping (or not Cosleeping) is a Cultural Thing
Historically it was natural for us to cosleep with our babies. According to anthropological and developmental studies, mothers and babies are biologically and psychologically designed to cosleep. Being close to baby allows mama to sense babies' cues. James J. McKenna, an athropologist and director emeritus of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame has devoted his career to understanding what happens with babies when they sleep together and apart from their caregivers. In his book, Safe Infant Sleep: Expert Answers to Your Cosleeping Questions, he says that historically, parents slept with their babies for safety and protection. McKenna explains that Western societies started to change how families sleep about 500 years ago when Catholic priests heard confessions from women who had "overlain" on their newborns to suffocate them in a desperate attempt to limit their family sizes, because they couldn't afford more children. As a result, the Church ordered babies sleep in separate cradles until the age of three. Over time, other trends converged with this, including a rising value on individualism. Today, most other cultures around the world still practice cosleeping, including: Southern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Central and Southern America.
There are Different Forms of Cosleeping
Cosleeping doesn't mean just sharing a bed with baby. Some cultures have baby sleep in a hammock or basket within arms reach, some keep a basket in the bed, and others have some kind of sidecar arrangement. Whatever the arrangement, cosleeping involves sleeping within sensory range of babies.
When we first brought baby home, we had his Pack n' Play in our room, and now thinking back, I think I would instinctually pull his Pack n' Play right up against the bed next to me so that I could sense him. I didn't know that was the case, but I remember thinking, I feel like I can sense him better this way and know when he needs something. It felt safer to me. As a new parent I just wanted to keep him alive and build trust with him by tending to his needs as promptly as possible. When I was a baby, parents were being told to let us cry it out, and while I think there's still some debate about it, I believe we have come to learn the importance of responding to our babies' cries and needs, especially during the newborn phase when that's one of their main forms of communication.
The incredible connection between mama and baby are shown through the effects cosleeping has on mama and baby. Mama's and baby's heart rate, temperature, breathing, oxygen, sleep states, and even brain waves influence each other. You may have heard of the phrase "Fourth trimester." I read somewhere that some believe babies need another three months in the womb, but can you imagine us birthing 15lb babies? Yeah, no thanks! So, it makes sense that babies do well and develop well continuing to be close to mama even outside the womb, especially in those first three months after birth. Still, studies have shown that separation after the first three months, for example for sleep training, have shown increased cortisol levels in babies, even after they appear to sleep "better."
In addition, studies seem to also show that kids who coslept with parents tended to be more independent. I was happy to read this, because I was worried I was going to make our baby too codependent on me. However, the studies showed kids who coslept as babies tended to be able to dress themselves more, entertain themselves, and be more self-reliant and confident in their daily lives. I think this goes back to what I had mentioned about building trust with our baby. It seems that babies who feel safe and are able to build that trust with their parents, especially as newborns, tend to be more independent, and I think that cosleeping allows for that sense of safety and allows parents to respond more quickly to babies' needs.
More Frequent Feedings and Wakings
Naturally, with baby so close to breast, cosleeping babies tend to nurse more and wake more during the night. They can smell the boob! Although they may feed more, feedings often are quite short--sometimes even 2-3 minutes. At our four week well-baby visit with the pediatrician, she started to tell us we can let him sleep longer, 4-5 hours at night. When he didn't do this, I started stressing about why our baby wouldn't sleep longer. At one point around week 5 or 6, he started to feed every hour and it became overwhelming for me. However, once I understood that his sleep and feeding patterns were likely due to our cosleeping arrangement (and probably growth spurts), my mind was put at ease and I stopped worrying that everyone else's babies seemed to sleep better or through the night. Now when he does wake in the middle of the night to feed, it's usually what is known as a "dream feed." So, he's not even really awake and he goes back to sleep right away...or continues to sleep once he's done feeding. This is true even when they do actually wake, especially earlier on, but going back to sleep quickly means parents also go back to sleep quickly. So, you're actually getting more sleep this way. And the reason they tend to wake more easily is because both mama and baby tend to sleep lighter, which is actually safer. This is because mama (or both parents) are then able to easily check on baby, and baby gets a chance to recalibrate her/his breathing to mama's. An additional benefit to this is that REM sleep (the light sleep stage) is important for the rapid growth of connections between neurons in newborns.
Don't Drink, Smoke, or Sleep with Baby when Overly Exhausted
In Japan, SIDS rates are one of the lowest, and it continues to decline as maternal smoking rates reach nearly zero and exclusive nursing increases to 70%-75%. There is even a report that shows increased bedsharing and nursing with declining smoking has led to decreased SIDS rates. So, it's not necessarily that bedsharing is dangerous, but how bedsharing is practiced that can be dangerous.
Cosleeping Benefits for Dad
While I've largely referred to mama and baby sleeping together, there are studies that have shown benefits for dads who sleep close to baby, too. Dads who sleep close to baby tend to have lower testosterone, which means they are more sensitive and responsive to baby, which means better fathering.
In all honesty, the reason I have largely referred to mama and baby cosleeping, is because I'm not sure I've noticed the benefits in my own husband. This isn't to say my husband is a total brute of a father, but let's just say my husband is still getting in tune with his more sensitive side. And I re-emphasize in other words, he's not NOT sensitive, but I haven't seen cosleeping making him more sensitive.
You're Not Likely to Roll Over on Baby
As I mentioned earlier, baby and mama are able to sense each other more and better when they sleep in sensing range. In our case, if I'm not sensing him, he's at least whacking me with his flailing arms. So, according to literature I have read, it's not necessarily more likely that you'll roll over on baby while sleeping. That is the big fear everyone has, but I believe that comes from when women used to do it on purpose, 500 years ago, and also when women go to sleep with baby whilst drunk or overly exhausted. So, if you cosleep with baby, just make sure baby is in a safe space and that you're not inebriated or overexhausted. I'm sure you may be thinking, aren't all parents of newborns overexhausted? Probably, but trust me, if you intentionally sleep with baby, you will know what's best for you and baby. If you're not sure, talk to your pediatrician or other appropriate professional. Additionally, McKenna's studies showed that babies who coslept tended to be able to get themselves out of positions that blocked their air passage and/or alert their parents.
You Are Not Alone
If you already cosleep, know that you are not alone and that cosleeping is on the rise in the U.S. The CDC found that 68% of babies cosleep some of most nights, while 26% of babies always or almost always cosleep with parents. I've come to find that between my mama friends and I, we openly speak about it with each other. However, I was certainly afraid to share that information with our pediatrician, but was pleasantly surprised to find that she was not judgmental at all about it. I didn't even dare mention it to the lactation specialist I worked with for our latch issues, because she consistently re-emphasaized swaddling, and putting baby on his back to sleep in his own bed. I was worried I'd get scolded or judged. That was before I learned all the benefits and how natural and normal cosleeping actually is.
The Bond is Undeniably Special
I've probably said this in other blogs before, but while I always knew I'd love my kid fiercely and unconditionally, I never knew just how intense that love would be. For the same reasons I fell in love with breastfeeding, I love cosleeping with my son. My parents think I'm spoiling him, and yes I'm aware that we may have difficulties getting him to sleep in his own bed when that time comes, but for now I will take advantage of every way I can bond with and give my son the best care that I can give him. Other moms I know who cosleep also love it. It's usually the dads who are in a hurry to get baby to sleep on her/his own.
My Observations and Tips
When it comes to how and where your baby sleeps, do what you feel is best. You know yourself and your baby best (even if you're a new parent and think you have no clue what is going on with your baby). When we first put him in our bed, somehow we had him swaddled and propped in his boppy to keep him safe. I have no idea how we fit that boppy in our bed, but we did. After that first time I couldn't figure out how to get the boppy back in the bed. Moving forward, we just always created a space we knew he was safe in. We also knew in the early weeks that our baby didn't really move much, especially while swaddled, so I felt he was not likely to roll into any pillows or covers and I always made sure the covers were low enough so that they wouldn't cover him. He and I were level on the pillows. And while AAP recommends not having any pillows or blankets near baby, the elevation helped with our baby's reflux, so he slept better that way. Of course, our baby quickly grew to hate being swaddled, but we still always made sure we created a safe space for him between my husband and I. That safe space includes my husband sleeping in my pregnancy pillow. That was not intentional, but when we came home from the hospital, we switched sides in our bed so I could be closer to baby, and he got my pregnancy pillow with the switch. While I miss my pillow, I've become grateful for this unintentional barrier, because I feel it has worked to keep my husband from squashing baby. Furthermore, whenever I have felt my husband come too close to baby, even if he's not touching baby, but just too close for my comfort, my maternal instincts kick in and I've now got reflexes like a ninja--even whilst half asleep! So, I've quickly pushed hubby away, faster than I've ever been at anything in my life.
Now our baby does move more, but it's still mostly his arms and legs that move. He also rolls on his side, but he has been a side sleeper since birth, and he doesn't roll enough to block air passages. Quite frankly, he sleeps like his mama does. When I was a kid my aunt called me a little twister because I'd move around so much in bed. In any case, my maternal instincts and ninja reflexes are always on high alert, and since we still wake every 2-3 hours for feedings, I'm still able to constantly check on him.
So, if you want to cosleep with your baby, my main tips are, make sure baby is safe, perhaps create a barrier between hubby and baby, know yourself and what's comfortable for you, and get advice from professionals or other cosleeping parents.
The reason I wanted to write this blog was to share information you might not get if you don't look into cosleeping, and to say that it's not the evil some might have us think it is. There is a risk in baby sleeping anywhere, so wherever baby sleeps, just make sure baby is safe. There are even now little baby sleepers that are designed for cosleeping, or bassinets that attach to the bed.
And trust me when I say, we tried many times to get baby back into his own bed, but we found that baby just slept best next to Mama.
In all the articles and books I have read that discuss cosleeping, they have all mentioned James J. McKenna, so I feel like he's the Godfather on this subject. You can purchase his book on Amazon. I in now way am affiliated with him, so I do not get anything by linking his book here. The Natural Child Project also has some great articles on cosleeping if you're interested in learning more.
Do you cosleep with your baby? Would love to hear your experiences!