By contributing writer Andrea Vandiver
Okay. Here I go, treading into controversial territory. I feel some fear and shame about announcing to the world that we practice co-sleeping. And that’s partly why I want to write about this.
It’s trendy to joke about our “downfalls” as parents. You don’t have to look far to find a blog or a YouTube channel whose sole focus is just that. Wearing the same yoga pants two days in a row. Turning on cartoons in exchange for some extra sleep. And for the last two and a half years that’s how I’ve explained away what we do. To my friends. To my family.
I say I’m just a frazzled mom who has zero willpower.
Except that’s not entirely true. Sure, I get stressed. And yeah, there are times I compromise my standards when I’m overwhelmed.
But the truth is that I purposely, intentionally, enjoyably co-sleep.
And it started the first week of being a mom.
The things you say you’ll never do
My husband and I struggled with infertility for four years. So we had a lot of time to discuss our parenting philosophies. We knew we were “crunchy” and subscribed to most of what goes along with that. Natural birth. Breastfeeding. Baby wearing.
But co-sleeping? No way. We weren’t doing that. That little baby was going to sleep in a bassinet in our room for a couple of months and then it was off to the crib in his room. We wanted peace. And sleep. And a child who you could lay down in a crib who’d wake up twelve hours later.
We were fortunate enough to have my mother-in-law stay with us for the first few days after I had my son. I labored for 22 hours and our little bundle of joy was born at 4:08 a.m. But between the steady stream of visitors and leftover adrenaline I had no chance of sleeping that day. Thankfully, my husband’s sweet mother stayed up with our baby that night and brought him to me when he needed to nurse.
After that first night I was eager to keep him in our room. I wanted to feel like I was fully capable of caring for him. I had a bassinet set up next to my bed for him to sleep in. But, he didn’t sleep.
Oh, he’d be asleep when I’d lay him down. But ten minutes later he was awake again. So over the next few days I started buying gadgets. Every sleep sack, swaddle thing and bed basket anyone recommended.
Image by Andrea Vandiver
I frantically posted in a Facebook group I was in with likeminded moms. They encouraged me and told me about their experiences. The first night I kept our six-pound baby in bed with me I told my husband to stay up and watch me. He was amazed at how I’d adjust the blanket without waking. Or how I’d start to nurse our baby just as he started to stir, before he’d even cry.
Now, I’m a co-sleeping advocate. I actually love it. I wouldn’t change the time I’ve spent doing it. The pros completely outweigh the cons. Before we get into the why of co-sleeping though, let’s cover what it is and how to do it safely.
Co-sleeping is a general term that covers any arrangement in which your child sleeps in your room. This can mean a crib in your room, a crib or co-sleeping device (like this one) next to your bed, or bed-sharing.
Most people, however, think of bed-sharing when they hear the term co-sleeping.
In order to safely bed-share, there are some pretty hard and fast rules. While co-sleeping is natural and instinctual, our sleeping arrangements are much different than that of our ancestors. A few simple steps and little to no money can quickly eliminate hazards and create a cozy, safe space for you and your baby.
Creating a safe environment
- Avoid curtains or blinds that might have dangling strings.
- Avoid spaces or gaps that could trap baby. This could be between your bed frame and the mattress and/or your bed and the wall.
- Consider the height of your bed. A lot of people worry that babies might roll out of bed. That has never happened when my son has been asleep next to me. His instincts keep him right by my side. But if you bed-share, you’ll naturally spend more time in and around your bed – awake. High beds can be very dangerous during those times. We chose to put our mattress on the floor instead of investing in a lower profile frame.
- Avoid soft surfaces and bedding. A normal mattress (no water beds or couches) with a simple quilt or blanket works perfectly. Duvet covers and multiple blankets can be a concern with young babies. Babies and infants should not use a pillow (see breastfeeding section below).
Other more personal factors are equally important
- Drug, alcohol or tobacco use immediately compromises the safety of bed-sharing. This includes pain or sleep medications.
- Some experts suggest only co-sleeping with one baby at a time. While moms come hardwired with instincts that protect baby, a wild, thrashing toddler does not. (You know the kind of which I speak.)
- Breastfeeding is a huge safety advantage in bed-sharing. Hear me out. Dear mothers, each of you, you are doing a great job. I’m not shaming formula-feeding mothers. At all. But I want to arm you with the information you need to make the best decision whenever possible. Breastfeeding mothers and babies are more instinctively aware of each other. A breastfeeding baby wants to stay in a position where it can easily latch and unlatch. Try this test. Lay a pillow down on the floor and lay on it like you would in bed. Now place your baby next to you.
No, really. Go try it! (A lovely, wonderful, formula-feeding mom friend of mine tried this experiment with me when my son was little. We had different outcomes.)
Image by Andrea Vandiver
Where did you place your baby?
Most breastfeeding moms lay their baby down where their head is level with their breast, below the pillow. Other moms usually place their baby’s head on the pillow, at eye level. This is a dangerous place for a young baby or infant to sleep.
Sounds like a lot of trouble. Is it worth it?
One hundred times, YES.
There are countless benefits, but here area few of my favorites.
Many well-known physicians believe that co-sleeping, and especially bed-sharing, drastically reduces the risk of SIDS. Dr. James McKenna, author of Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-sleeping has written about this extensively.
The famous and beloved Dr. Sears is also an advocate of co-sleeping. Some studies have shown that a baby’s breathing pattern will align and sync with its mother when they are near each other. Because the current science behind SIDS points to breathing issues, this seems like nature’s built-in safety mechanism.
Especially when we need it most. You know the newborn phase when the baby is hungry all the time and you are so exhausted and you’re pretty sure you’re never going to catch up on sleep and that sweet little cry is waking you every four hours, two hours, 45 minutes?
Yeah, that phase.
Our bodies just conceived, carried and delivered this amazing little thing and it was a lot of work. We need all the sleep we can get in order to recover. And function.
Bed-sharing makes nighttime breastfeeding a piece of cake. No getting up, traipsing across the house, sitting in an uncomfortable chair for an hour and then carefully, quietly putting a baby back in a crib. After the first few nights my son would latch on without either of us waking up. It was glorious.
Better milk supply
I know the golden egg of parenting goals is to get our babies to sleep through the night. But if you struggle with milk supply at all, it helps to nurse your baby through the night. A lot. And that means no more waking up in the morning engorged and uncomfortable.
My absolute, number one reason for bed-sharing (and now keeping his toddler bed in our room) is the extra time I’ve been able to spend with my son. Some of my favorite moments have happened right before bed when he’s burned off enough energy to simply lay with me. It’s about this time of day when he’s most affectionate toward me.
And it makes sense – our days are long and sometimes busyness can wear down the parent-child relationship. Lying together at night is one the best ways I’ve found to recharge and rekindle the tenderness between us.
Pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and sleeping – these are things we are designed to do. Letting our instincts take over and doing what feels natural is our best practice.
Eventually, bed-sharing started interfering with everyone’s sleep. So we brought the toddler bed into our room and now our son sleeps in it. At first, I put it next to our bed. During the night I’d reach over and hold him like he’s been used to since day two of his life. After a while of that (and some attempts at creeping back into our bed) we moved the bed away from ours.
I’m still near him if he wakes up scared or needs a drink or a trip to the potty. And I love lying in bed and hearing him say “I love you, Mommy” from across the room. Approximately 30 times before he falls asleep.
I know there will come a day when he moves into his own room. But today is not that day. And neither is tomorrow.