I was raised with the firm belief that children should have their own space in the house. Their own room, certainly, and perhaps most importantly, their own bed to sleep in. Despite a few staged pictures from my childhood that might indicate otherwise, we weren’t allowed to sleep in Mom & Dad’s room. When I was pregnant with my first child, I very much enjoyed decorating the nursery and preparing my baby’s space. I took every care in planning and decorating, and couldn’t wait to place baby in his crib.
Then we actually had the baby, and the thought of putting this teensy, tiny, helpless creature in a room all alone on the other side of the house was… unsettling. And so we did what many parents do, and we planned to have baby in a bassinet close to my side of the bed. That was short-lived; like one night only, as I was a breastfeeding mom and still learning to nurse, so we compromised and put the baby in the bed with us – just for a short time, you understand. Until suddenly, he was 6 months old, and having a baby in the bed with us had become the norm for our family. Without realizing it, we did what thousands of families before us had done. We co-slept. We ‘shared sleep’. Or, if you prefer, we adopted the ‘family bed’.
In many cultures, the family bed is the cultural norm. In the United States, we tend to value independence to the point of insisting that our newborns should embrace the concept immediately upon exiting the womb, so the idea is still a bit foreign. Every year, there are reports of babies being injured or killed while sleeping in the same bed with a sibling or parents, and we of the safety-conscious Western world take note and feel smug that our independent babies are out of the danger zone. But in other cultures where co-sleeping is the norm, it’s a rare thing for a baby to be harmed while sharing sleep with his family. That makes sense, because when parents in our culture sleep with a baby, it’s often an ‘accident’ – mom is tired and so she ‘rests’ for a minute and ends up falling alseep in an unsafe place or way, while in cultures where co-sleeping is planned for, safety is a prime concern.
In part, this is due to how the bed is shared. Like anything else to do with your baby, there are safety guidelines and considerations to take under advisement. In researching for this article, I found that there are lots of pictures of a whole family in a bed, but very few pictures on the internet (according to Google images) that depict bed-sharing safely. According to Dr. James McKenna of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at Norte Dame University, safe co-sleeping guidelines include:
- both parents need to understand the benefits and risks associated with co-sleeping, and be committed to safety in the family bed
- breastfeeding babies should sleep next to mother; never between adults
- bottle-feeding babies are safer on a flat surface next to mother’s bed, rather than in bed with mother.
- siblings should not share sleep with a baby less than one year of age
- a baby should never share sleep with mother or father who is intoxicated, or on medications, sedatives or other drugs that would interfere with his or her awareness during sleep
- obese persons may present more of a safety hazard to a co-sleeping baby
- baby’s sleeping space should be firm, with no pillows or bedding (sheets, comforters, blankets or clothing) that could present a hazard to the baby near him/her
- persons with long hair should tie hair up and out of the way to prevent baby from becoming entangled in long hair
- sleep clothing should avoid being extra loose, or with spaghetti straps or other features that could entangle baby or obstruct his/her breathing
- the bed should be semi-firm (pillow top mattresses, or cushy toppers are no-no), and pillows and bedding should be kept to a minimum, and away from baby.
The question is, why would you deliberately plan on co-sleeping? And isn’t that weird? And how in the world do you sleep with a baby in the bed?
Though I am no expert, I can draw on my own experiences as a reluctant convert to co-sleeping parent, and working with families over the past decade to share with you. For many new parents, it’s a matter of getting sleep. Like I mentioned above, new parents are tired. We often get the advice to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’, but many of us find that to be impractical advice. New babies take up a lot of mom’s time, and so when the baby sleeps may be the only time a new mom has to get things done that can’t be done with a babe in arms. This is even more true if she has older kids that need attention. Since few babies have an issue sleeping in mom’s arms, having mom lie down with baby is a natural progression. Sleep-deprived moms will do almost anything for more sleep, so if this is something you’ve been struggling with, maybe try it?
As a new practice, and/or something you may not have considered or planned on, sleeping with a child in the bed can definitely take some getting used to. To reiterate the safety guidelines above, there are some things to consider before just plopping a baby into your bed and dozing off. But, when done with safety in mind, co-sleeping with the breastfed baby has a lot of benefits, including:
- more, better sleep for mom – if baby wakes frequently to nurse, then the advantage of side-lying breastfeeding (not having to get up/out of bed) is obvious.
- Being able to get to baby when s/he first stirs means an easier transition back to sleep.
- establishment of milk supply in the early weeks; maintaining milk supply or boosting milk supply later on – having baby in bed can increase the number of times baby will nurse during the night, which is a key factor in milk regulation and production
- decreased risk of SIDS – AskDrSears has a great article that talks about the statistics, and even the AAP, who does not recommend actual bed-sharing, acknowledges that babies who sleep in the same room with mother reduces the risk of SIDS.
Even if you’re not breastfeeding, keeping baby close to mom at night (room-sharing) carries some of the same benefits as co-sleeping.
So what does co-sleeping look like when that’s your long-term plan? Beds are big, but they’re not usually made for an entire family!
For our family, we decided on the ‘bed ROOM’ plan. Essentially, one room was the sleeping room. It’s hard to see in the picture above – that was taken back in the days of 2.5 megapixel digital cameras – so I drew a layout to better explain how we set up our bedroom when my boys were small. It’s also worth pointing out that our house has a split floorplan; the master bedroom is on the other side of the house from the other bedrooms. So we chose to set up our bed in one of the smaller bedrooms for the first few years.
This worked out well when we transitioned the boys to their own room, because we were still only feet away at night. Now, that bedroom belongs to my oldest son, and we’ve moved into the master bedroom (with lovely attached bathroom). Interestingly enough, now that they both have their own rooms, more nights than not, they still sleep in the same room.
If you’re considering an unconventional sleeping arrangement for your family, be assured that there are many different configurations and durations and other options available to you. Though you may hear from dissenters, ultimately, where and how your family sleeps is up to you. If what you’re doing now isn’t working, try something new! If it doesn’t work, you can always change it again or go back to what you had before. Keep an open mind, and don’t be afraid to step outside of the mainstream, especially if it might mean more, better sleep for your family.
Please tell us what works for your family in the comments!
WMC Doula, Heather Thomas
Heather is one of WMC’s founding mothers and has two angsty, preteen boys whom she tandem nursed for pretty much ever. She’s a former La Leche League leader and currently holds a Breastfeeding Counselor certification with Breastfeeding USA. She is a peer counselor and board member for the Beaumont Breastfeeding Coalition, a DONA-trained birth doula and postpartum doula, and a veteran homeschool guru who blogs about her homeschool experiences at This Adventure Life. In her spare time, she’s a soccer mom with an orange belt in Shotokan Karate and Head Non-Skating Official with Spindletop Rollergirls. She very much enjoys being in charge, coffee, and all things red and black.