We originally had not planned to bed share with V. When we first began learning more about our options and saw all the recommendations for co-sleeping and, at a minimum, room sharing, we discussed what we thought would work best for us. Through the twists and turns of parenthood, we’ve landed in a place I never thought we’d be – bed sharing with a toddler – and on the way there we’ve done hours of research, deciding if this was best for us and for V, and when we decided yes to both those, how to do it safely. But is co-sleeping for you?
First, let’s straighten out some terminology.
- Co-sleeping – Any version of having your child sleep in the same room as you; this can include in the same bed, sidecar, bassinet, co-sleeper, separate mattress or crib
- Bed sharing – Literally having baby in your bed
Co-sleeping is often used to mean only bed sharing but it is important to note it is much broader. Dr. James McKenna (get used to that name as I’ll be referring to him a lot) at the Mother-Baby Sleep Lab at University of Notre Dame has a really beautiful definition for co-sleeping:
“Co-sleeping in the context of infant care practices refers to any situation in which the infant sleeps close, within sensory range, of a committed caregiver permitting each (the infant and caregiver) to detect and respond to the sensory signals and cues of the other.”
The significance of the difference between the blanket term co-sleeping and bed sharing is that essentially no doctor or organization recommends against co-sleeping. Most organizations, even those still using incorrect scare tactics against bed sharing, recommend co-sleeping for at least the first six months.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll use co-sleeping to mean any arrangement which keeps your baby in your bedroom.
Why is co-sleeping beneficial?
Research shows infants who at least sleep in the same room as their primary caregiver do better – like 50% reduction in SIDS risk better. But what other benefits are there and why? The next post in my co-sleeping series will be 10 benefits to co-sleeping for mom and baby, but here’s a short summary.
Babies are born with underdeveloped temperature, immune and respiratory systems. Sleeping near a caregiver helps with all three (and bed sharing helps even moreos!). When a baby is sleeping close to caregivers they are less likely to fall into a deeper sleep than they are developmentally ready to arouse themself from. This protects them from normal pauses in breathing. There is some research suggesting being close to mom or a caregiver help regulate baby’s heart rate and breathing – and that being exposed to mother’s exhale, a baby physioloically “remembers” to inhale, protecting them from extended breathing pauses.
From Dr. McKenna, “The lighter sleep, that all of these maternal-induced arousals [maternal odors, sounds and movements] promote, gives rise to what we consider to be ”safer sleep’ for infants especially for the level of neurological immaturity through which all human infants must pass.”
Did you know that at birth an infant does not yet have the ability to shiver to keep warm? Sleeping within reach of a caregiver, especially when bed sharing or when baby is within reach of a caregiver, and when baby is regularly nursed throughout the night, helps regulate an infant’s body temperature.
A co-sleeping (and especially bed sharing) mother is intensely in-tune with her baby and will often wake seconds before their baby does. Since baby is so close (often either right next or within arm’s reach to scoop next to a mother), breastfeeding is easy and mom and baby can both drift back off quickly, having never had to full wake up. This means more sleep for both. (Note: Research suggests this results in more sleep for mom and baby, but as baby ages closer to toddlerhood, they experience less sleep than their separate-room counterparts. However there is no evidence this has a negative impact on neurological or physial development and may be related to a quantity/quality argument.)
The benefits of co-sleeping and bed sharing on a breastfeeding relationship are numerous and the third post of this series will expand on that. Basically, it comes down to more frequently nursing through the night, ease of access, and ease of returning to sleep.
Now obviously a lot of these benefits are specific to closer forms of co-sleeping like bed sharing or sidecar, but even just being in the same room as your infant is beneficial and important – all agencies agree baby should be in your room until at least 6 months. Even the distance between your bed and your baby’s crib, while in the same room but not attached, allows care givers to be better in-tune with a baby’s cycles and will rouse much sooner at signs of distress vs. being in a separate room. Dr. McKenna puts it this way:
“In a sense proximity to parents during the night acts as a buffer between the immature infant and the microenvironment within which it lives.”
He gives a great overview of all things co-sleeping in this video if you’d like to know more.
There have been several campaigns in an effort to lower SIDS rates that cite bed sharing as a leading culprit and warn that it is dangerous. Some even use statistics like “bed sharing leads to a XX increase in SIDS”. However, these studies are extremely flawed and don’t control for the sleep surface type or whether any of the safe bed sharing guidelines were followed.
My favorite quote on this subject is from Dr. McKenna: “Bedsharing . . . can be made either safe or unsafe, but it is not intrinsically one nor the other”
When we dig deeper into the circumstances that lead to bed sharing-related deaths, there are always other contributing factors. Sometimes the mother smoked while pregnant, which leads to poor/slow aspirations in a baby. Sometimes they are using an unsafe sleep surface like a couch or water bed. There are ways to set up a safe bed sharing environment, but there are also lots of ways to do it unsafely. It is these circumstances that lead to bed sharing-related deaths, not bed sharing itself.
Dr. McKenna puts it this way:
“Unfortunately when infant sleep research was begun in western countries neither breastfeeding nor infants sleeping in the presence of their caregivers was thought to be appropriate, healthy, or beneficial while solitary, bottle fed babies, and all the measurements derived from solitary sleeping, bottle fed babies was thought to be normal and healthy. And these data are STILL unfortunately thought to be what all parents and infants should aspire to replicate.”
It’s important to remember that SIDS is a relatively recent phenomenon and that countries and cultures where bed sharing is commonplace have some of the lowest infant mortality rates, including SIDS. I’m not saying not bed sharing causes SIDS, I’m simply saying bed sharing safely doesn’t cause SIDS either. There is some evidence that the crib industry may have been behind the 2002 Consumer Product Safety Commission’s push for “Safe Sleep” campaigns touting the dangers of bed sharing and that formula and pacifier company funding may have influenced the American Academy of Pediatrics decision to jump on the bandwagon several years later. This debate is certainly anything but black and white.
So is bed sharing a safe, legitimate option for your family?
One thing I read that stuck with me was (I’m paraphrasing), “If you would blame yourself if your baby died of SIDS then you should co-sleep with baby on a separate but close surface.”
Um of course I would blame myself! So a side-carred crib was what we decided upon. It was fairly easy to do, simply take the front off your crib and wedge it next to your bed. We secured it with zip ties so they couldn’t wiggle apart and create dangerous gaps. I was overly paranoid they weren’t perfectly level.
This ended up so short-lived I don’t even have a decent picture of it. V spent zero nights in her crib. At 2 years old, she has still spent zero nights in it and around 10 months we decided she was probably a permanent fixture in our family bed until she’d be in a toddler bed so we took it apart and stored it for the next child. I am open to trying a sidecar with any future children, but the benefits to V have been so profound I won’t push the issue, especially now that I understand the safe way to bed share.
My point is this, and I believe it applies to so much of life, don’t count anything out before you’re in the thick of it. While pregnant, bed sharing seemed like a non-starter. But when V came and no one was sleeping and Husband went back to work and I wasn’t getting a full sleep cycle in ever, we knew something had to change. I am so thankful I had the research at my finger tips to learn both that bed sharing can be safe and how to do it safely.
What does bed sharing look like?
I still bed share with V and I am positive these will be some of the sweetest memories of her early years.
Since I work all day and only have an hour or two before V’s bedtime when I get home, spending our nights together is an amazing way for us to reconnect and bond. It also saved our breastfeeding relationship and within two weeks of returning to work, V reverse cycled and while that meant a lot of night nursings, we figured out side-lying nursing, V became a champion dream feeder and we both came out the better for it.
Now, at 2 years in, we are starting to change our bed sharing a bit. I’m starting to set limits to V’s nighttime nursing, starting to work on her falling asleep without nursing to sleep. But we’re doing it at her pace and we’re open to her needs.
Isn’t your bed too crowded?
Since Husband worked nights full time up until nursing school, we never really encountered space issues. Our queen-sized mattress was sufficient for V and I. Now that Husband is home more nights, we decided to buy a second mattress. We have the mattresses on the floor in the middle of the bedroom, with some boxes pushed between them and the walls so they don’t shift apart. Since V is 2, we aren’t as concerned about SIDS but we do still limit ourselves to two pillows and one blanket. She hates having blankets on her when she sleeps anyway so usually we sleep under the blanket and she sleeps on top of it.
How does it impact your marriage?
In my experience, bed sharing has been nothing but beneficial. I’m better rested and going to bed/waking up to my snuggly child is a great morale booster, both of which are great for my marriage. Husband and I were in a unique situation where we already weren’t sleeping in the same bed at night so it hasn’t had any impact on that. Now that all three of us are sleeping together in the family bed, I feel such great affection for my entire family when we wake up together and watching Husband night-parent, and how excited V is when daddy wakes up with us, brings back all those butterfly hubba-hubba hunky husband feelings, so it’s great for the emotional and physical well-being of our marriage. And as for “martial relations”, well these ladies sum it up pretty well.
But how long will they be in my bed?
If you are concerned about the long-term effects of co-sleeping, Dr. McKenna has some great resources and studies you can check out. My experience is that while V is sometimes reluctant to fall asleep once we are in bed (usually in the presence of a confounding factor like TV or sugar before bed, no nap, teething, etc.), she is always happy to go to bed. We literally never have to fight her to get into bed. She loves snuggling, rocking and nursing and while I end up with less deep sleep and more knots in my back, I am very satisfied with the arrangement and have a hard time imagining having her in a separate room all night long. Now that she is 2 we do discuss moving to her own bed sometime in the future and we offer her her own bed every once in a while but so far she doesn’t seem interested. We’ll continue as-is until it is clearly having a negative impact on her sleep, she no longers wants to, or we welcome another baby (in which case we will probably move to a broad family bed, with or without sidecar, and reassess if V is waking the baby up).
How long a child will remain in your bed really just depends on you, your family situation and your child’s personality/needs. Some children will stop sleeping well in a family bed at 1 or 2 and need their own space. Often, children revert back to wanting to share a bed when they reach 4ish. Some children may be content to sleep in a family bed until they reach elementary age. As long as it is working for you and your child, feel free to keep the family bed going. If you aren’t getting enough sleep anymore, new babies throw off the family bed functionality or it just isn’t working anymore, you can certainly begin to transition to separate sleeping spaces. It’s really up to you and it doesn’t have to be a 10-year commitment.
So you think bed-sharing may be for you? Awesome! BUT be sure to go down this checklist of safe sleep requirements before bringing baby into your bed. Remember bed sharing can quickly become unsafe if you don’t meet certain conditions.
If bed sharing isn’t for you, that is totally fine. If, however, lack of sleep or your newborn’s temperament are leading you to consider unsafe sleep arrangements, like sleeping on the couch or sitting up in a chair, then maybe it is time to consider a safe bed sharing relationship. We never imagined we’d be here but now we can’t imagine having V in a separate room from us and are planning to expand to a family bed if we have another child, until V wants her own space.
Want to read more about bed sharing and co-sleeping? Check these out.
- Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone – NeuroAnthropology
- What Every Health Professional Should Know – Dr. James McKenna
- 5 Reasons to Sleep With Your Baby (And One Good Reason Not To) – Mommypotamus
- Co-sleeping: Yes, No, Sometimes – Dr. Sears
- How the Stats Really Stack Up – Dr. Momma
- Co-sleeping and Bed Sharing – KellyMom (Especially check out the resources at the end of this one.)
- Myths and Truths About Co-sleeping – The Bump
- Dr. Sears Addresses Recent Co-sleeping Concerns
- Science of Sharing Sleep – Dr. Momma