In Part 1 of my co-sleeping series we looked at what co-sleeping was (and wasn’t) and all things co-sleeping and bed sharing. In Part 2 we looked at 10 reasons you should at least consider co-sleeping. In this final part, we will look at why bed sharing and breastfeeding (aka breastsleeping) are a perfect match.
The benefits of breastsleeping tie into several common problems for new moms: milk supply and lack of sleep.
So what exactly is breastsleeping?
It’s a term coined by infant sleep expert Dr. James McKenna that refers to the practice of mother and baby sharing a bed while breastfeeding on and off throughout the night. In 2015, he co-authored a piece for Acta Paediatrica, a well-respected European Journal, entitled “There is no such thing as infant sleep, there is no such thing as breastfeeding, there is only breastsleeping”. They introduced the term in hopes of normalizing the practice of breastfeeding mothers keeping their babies in bed with them, which has been practiced throughout cultures and centuries. They also hoped that it would renew discussions of what safe sleep looks like and why bed sharing and breastfeeding is a much safer sleep arrangement than bed sharing while bottle or formula feeding, and sleep surface sharing and breastfeeding (such as falling asleep on the couch or chair while breastfeeding).
One of my favorite quotes from Dr. McKenna follows (emphasis mine):
“Rather consuming breastmilk and experiencing the breastfeeding process, the engagement with their mothers, socially, cognitively, emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically is what is important to them and this is intimately and functionally interdependent with the type of sleep that they experience. In fact what constitutes normal and healthy infant sleep cannot be understood independent of nighttime breastfeeding as the two co-evolved and was designed by natural selection to maximize infant health and well-being.“
Why is breastsleeping an ideal situation for the breastfeeding mother-infant dyad?
Breastsleeping babies nurse as much as twice as many times throughout the night
While I’m sure that sounds like the opposite of what you want when you are sleep deprived, stay with me. This is amazing for your milk supply and for delaying your fertility’s return since prolactin levels are highest overnight. It was thanks to breastsleeping that I didn’t experience a return of fertility for 25 months after V was born! This is especially helpful for moms who leave their infant during the day for work or school. Called “reverse cycling“, these babies often will flip their normal nursing patterns and begin taking more feedings through the night. Basically the baby prefers getting his/her milk along with the comfort of mom and will drink just enough from a bottle or cup to not feel extremely hungry and then will nurse often (it can feel like constantly!) once mom returns home. This worked really well for us but I know it would have been impossible without breastsleeping. It also meant I didn’t need to pump quite as much milk when I was away at work since V would only drink 1-2oz every few hours while I was gone (and yes, she maintained or gained on the growth charts so there was no question she was getting enough milk throughout the day).
Mamas get more sleep
Studies have shown that breastfeeding moms who bed share (or at least co-sleep with baby very nearby) get more sleep than those who move their babies to another room or even in a crib across the room. Human breastmilk is low in fat and protein and high in sugar so it is metabolized quickly, meaning babies naturally need to nurse often throughout the day and night. By keeping baby close enough that you don’t have to leave your bed for night-feeds, moms don’t have to wake up as fully, resulting in more sleep. And because baby doesn’t have to rouse completely into full-out crying mode to get more food, he/she settles back into sleep quickly, often only requiring mom to latch before they both drift back to sleep (aka dream-feed).
But is it safe?
There have been several scare campaigns in an effort to get parents to stop bringing their young infants into bed with them. While SIDS and suffocation/smothering deaths do happen and are certainly something to be concerned about, the statistics never control for safe bed sharing vs. unsafe bed sharing (for more on what constitutes safe bed sharing, check out this post). Studies actually show that mother/baby pairs who breastsleep match each others sleep cycles and that babies in these pairings rouse much more easily, that mothers exhale helps baby remember to inhale during the long breathing pauses that are common in early infancy, and that bed sharing babies have better temperature regulation, along with a host of other benefits.
My thought as an accidental breastsleeper
As an “accidental breastsleeper”, my opinions on infant sleep are based completely on the research I’ve done (specifically looking at anthropological and psychological angles) and from my experience with my first child. I’ll definitely be updating this post in a few months once we’ve adjusted to life with a newborn again and figured out our sleeping/breastfeeding relationship.
That all being said, one big negative I’ve seen mentioned in discussions about breastsleeping is that it makes it harder for children to eventually move out of moms bed and go to sleep without the breast. From my research, experience and discussions I’ve had with moms of multiple children, this depends entirely on the situation.
First, some babies refuse to fall asleep at the breast, in which case they are unlikely to attach to the breast as a sleep aid. Second, when this is brought up, if you follow-up with questions about at what age they believe this to be an issue or at what age do they think children should be able to fall asleep on their own, the typical response is 12 weeks or 6 months. For some people, their expectation is that a baby only needs help falling asleep for the first few months of life, and should then be able to manage it on their own. To me, this is entirely unreasonable (and unlikely, without the help of some heavy sleep training). When you look at the physiological reason babies need frequent night feeds and the evolutionary reasons babies natural desire is to be directly next to their mothers during infancy, it just makes sense that while it isn’t convenient in our current culture, it is the way we are naturally wired to be. And thirdly, different babies have different sleep patterns and needs. Some babies naturally begin sleeping in 6-8hr stretches at a very young age, while some will struggle to sleep four-consecutive hours well into toddler years.
With V, we fell into breastsleeping. We attempted to move her out of the bed several times and it just never felt right. We tried a few times to move her naps to a crib but she slept more quickly and for longer periods of time when she was attached to someone (Husband was such a champ handling all her daytime naps for her first 7 months, and spent most of the first few months attached to our Ergo).
When she was older, we would talk about moving into her own bed and discuss if she wanted to be in her own room. Neither of these really seemed appealing to her (go figure). She seems to be a very sensitive child and we all seemed to be getting the most sleep with our breastsleeping arrangement so we didn’t feel the need to stress about changing it.
However, as soon as I found out I was pregnant again, we moved her crib mattress into our room next to our floor bed and we started introducing it to her. We also night weaned shortly thereafter but were still bed sharing. When she was around 2.5 years old, we began making the push for her to at least start the night in her own bed. Mostly because we are both pretty lenient about her getting into our beds (seriously, when you’ve spent 2.5 years cuddling your little one every night, sometimes it’s hard for parents to cut that connection, too!) she still ends up in one of our beds 3-4 nights a week. Some nights it’s an all-night thing; some nights it will only be for the last few hours of early morning sleep.
We’ve talked about how once the baby comes, the baby will need nursies all night and will sleep with mommy so V will have to be the big sister and stay in her own bed. It’s hard finding just the right way to make the transition and I’m pretty sure we haven’t done it all right, but I know for sure breastsleeping is the best choice for my milk supply, my delay of fertility, sleep for baby and me (and thus, for everyone) and for our LO’s well-being and it will always be offered as the first option. If a few weeks or months in it becomes clear baby and/or I are not getting good sleep this way, then we’ll reevaluate and find a new solution.