With a new baby on the way, you often hear talk about decorating a nursery. Have you been busy buying baby paraphernalia (like cribs, mobiles, and crib sheets with matching curtains) and dreaming of your small bundle of joy smiling at the dancing bunnies overhead and she drifts off to sleep? In the USA, when most expectant parents think about nighttime, they imagine placing baby in a crib, dimming the lights, and tiptoeing out of the room, leaving a peacefully slumbering baby behind. Is this the way you picture your baby’s sleeping arrangements?
There is no right or wrong place for baby to sleep. We believe, and Dr. Sears agrees, that wherever all family members sleep the best is the right arrangement for you. But in contrast to the scenario above, over half the world’s population sleeps with their baby, and more and more parents in the U.S. are sharing sleep with their little one.
Dr. Bill Sears’ simple definition of co-sleeping: Mother and baby sleeping within arm’s reach of one another. The closer that mother and baby can sleep together the healthier it is for both of them. Here’s why:
1. Babies sleep better
Sleep-sharing babies usually go to sleep and stay asleep better. Being parented to sleep at the breast of mother or in the arms of father creates a healthy go-to-sleep attitude. One of our goals of nighttime parenting is to teach baby learns that going to sleep is a pleasant state to enter.
Put yourself in your baby’s shoes. A baby passes from deep sleep into light sleep as often as every hour. For a small baby, this is a vulnerable period for nightwaking, and it is difficult for baby to resettle on his own into a deep sleep. You are a familiar presence, whom baby can touch, smell, and hear. Your presence reassures baby that “It’s OK to go back to sleep.” A familiar touch, perhaps a few minutes’ feed, and you comfort baby back into deep sleep without either parent or baby fully awakening.
Explains Dr. Sears:
Many babies need help going back to sleep because of a developmental quirk called object or person permanence. When something or someone is out of sight, it is out of mind. Most babies less than a year old do not have the ability to think of mother as existing somewhere else. When babies awaken alone in a crib, they become frightened and often unable to resettle back into deep sleep. Because of this separation anxiety, they learn that sleep is a fearful state to remain in (not one of our goals of nighttime parenting).
2. Mothers sleep better
Many mothers and infants are able to achieve nighttime harmony: babies and mothers get their sleep cycles in sync with one another.
Martha Sears notes: “I would automatically awaken seconds before my baby would. When the baby started to squirm, I would lay on a comforting hand and she would drift back to sleep. Sometimes I did this automatically and I didn’t even wake up.”
Contrast sleep-sharing with the crib and nursery scene. Baby awakens alone out of touch. He first squirms and whimpers. Finding himself still alone, baby’s cry escalates into a piercing wail that jolts mother awake and sends her staggering reluctantly down the hall. By the time mother reaches the baby, baby is wide awake and upset, mother is wide awake and upset, and the comforting that follows becomes a reluctant duty rather than an automatic, nurturing response. It takes longer to resettle an upset solo sleeper than it does a half-asleep baby who is sleeping within arm’s reach of mother. And mother may be wide-awake by now and too jittery to fall back asleep herself.
Dr. Sears explains: If, however, the baby is sleeping next to mother and they have their sleep cycles in sync, most mothers and babies can quickly resettle without either member of the sleepsharing pair fully awakening. Being awakened suddenly and completely from a state of deep sleep to attend to a hungry or frightened baby is what leads to sleep-deprived parents and fearful babies.
3. Breastfeeding is easier
In order to preserve sanity, most veteran breastfeeding mothers have learned that sharing sleep makes breastfeeding easier. They often wake up just before the babies awaken for a feeding. By being there and anticipating the feeding, mother can breastfeed baby back to a deep sleep before baby (and often mother) fully awakens.
(Note: Breastfeeding mothers find it easier than bottlefeeding mothers to get their sleep cycles in sync with their babies.)
Dr. Sears explains:
Mothers who experience daytime breastfeeding difficulties report that breastfeeding becomes easier when they sleep next to their babies at night and lie down with baby and nap nurse during the day. We believe baby senses that mother is more relaxed, and her milk-producing hormones work better when she is relaxed or sleeping.
4. It’s contemporary parenting
Sleep-sharing is even more relevant in today’s busy lifestyles. As more and more mothers, out of necessity, are separated from their baby during the day, sleeping with their baby at night allows them to reconnect and make up for missed touch time during the day. As a nighttime perk, the relaxing hormones that are produced in response to baby nursing relax a mother and help her wind down from the tension of a busy work day.
5. Babies thrive
Dr. Sears explains: Over the past thirty years of observing sleep-sharing families in our pediatric practice, we have noticed one medical benefit that stands out; these babies thrive . “Thriving” means not only getting bigger, but also growing to your full potential, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. Perhaps it’s the extra touch, in addition to the extra feedings, that stimulates development (yes, sleep-sharing infants breastfeed more often than solo sleepers).
6. Parents and infants become more connected
One of your early goals of parenting is becoming connected with your baby. Infants who sleep with their parents (some or all of the time) during those early formative years not only thrive better, but infants and parents are more connected.
7. Reduces the risk of SIDS
New research is showing that infants who sleep safely nestled next to parents are less likely to succumb to the tragedy of SIDS. (Yet, because SIDS is so rare– .5 to 1 case per 1,000 infants– this worry should not be a reason to sleep with your baby. For in depth information on the science of sleepsharing and the experiments showing how sleep benefits a baby’s nighttime physiology, click here.)
image from cornerstork
Sleepsharing is an optional attachment tool. Co-sleeping does not always work and some parents simply do not want to sleep with their baby. You are not bad parents if you don’t sleep with your baby, but you should try it. If it’s working and you enjoy it, continue. If not, try other sleeping arrangements (an alternative is to place a crib or co-sleeper adjacent to your bed).
Dr. Sears explains:
New parents often worry that their child will get so used to sleeping with them that he may never want to leave their bed. Yes, if you’re used to sleeping first-class, you are reluctant to be downgraded. Like weaning from the breast, infants do wean from your bed (usually sometime around two years of age. Click here for tips on transitioning kids to their own bed). Keep in mind that sleep-sharing may be the arrangement that is designed for the safety and security of babies. The time in your arms, at your breast, and in your bed is a very short time in the total life of your child, yet the memories of love and availability last a lifetime.
Visit Dr. Sear’s website for more information on sleep-sharing:
Our Co-sleeping Experiences
Stories From Co-Sleeping Parents
7 Benefits of Co-sleeping: Medical and Developmental
Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper Bassinet
Co-Sleeping and SIDS