The Cosleeping Debate
Babies have been sleeping beside their mothers for centuries. The practice of cosleeping (also co-sleeping) has been practiced in many cultures around the world. It is only since the late 1700′s that babies in the Western world have started sleeping separately from their mothers.
Definition of Cosleeping
There are actually two forms of cosleeping — sleeping in the parental bed and sleeping in the same room. “The term cosleeping refers to any situation in which a committed adult caregiver, usually the mother, sleeps within close enough proximity to her infant so that each, the mother and the infant, can respond to each other’s sensory signals and cues. Room sharing is a form of cosleeping.” (McKenna) The terms co-sleeping and bedsharing are usually used interchangeably, but aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Benefits of Cosleeping
There are three main benefits of cosleeping.
1. Lower risk of SIDS
“In Japan where co-sleeping and breastfeeding … is the cultural norm, rates of sudden infant death syndrome are the lowest in the world.” (McKenna)
One of the more proliferating myths about cosleeping is that the risk of SIDS increases with cosleeping. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2005 stating “that bed-sharing was associated with an increase in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and strongly recommend against the practice.” (Parenting.com) Proponents of cosleeping assert that these claims unnecessarily create panic and judgment towards mothers who cosleep.
One of the most common fears, along with SIDS, is suffocation. It is widely accepted among doctors and researchers in support of cosleeping (including the World Health Organization or WHO and UNICEF) that certain things need to be done to make sure the environment is safe.
1) Parents should not cosleep with their babies if they have been drinking, are overly exhausted or have taken medications. These interfere with a mother’s (and father’s) sensitivity to the presence of the baby in the bed.
2) Cosleeping should not be allowed with other young children (toddlers) in the bed, since younger children are not likely to be sensitive to the presence of the baby. There are many cases, however, where families with several children do cosleep. It is a good idea, then, to ensure that the younger children sleep apart from the infant or sleeping positions are arranged so that the infant is protected.
3) Babies should not be placed on their stomach especially if the mattress is soft. Babies should not be laid near or on top of pillows. Be aware of comforters, quilts and other plush items or toys on the bed and arrange bedding to prevent obstructing the baby’s airway. A sleeper might be an alternative, particularly in colder climates where comforters or quilts are a necessity.
4) Beds and mattresses should be thoroughly examined to eliminate any spaces or gaps in the furniture which could allow a baby’s head or body to slip through. It is a good idea to roll or stuff blankets into these gaps to keep the baby from rolling and getting caught in those spaces. It is also suggested that the mattress be taken off the bed frame and placed directly on the floor to eliminate any spaces or gaps.
5) Since smoking during pregnancy diminishes a baby’s capacity to rouse themselves to protect them from suffocating, “smoking mothers should have their infants sleep alongside them on a different surface but not in the same bed.” (McKenna)
So far in the reporting of the incidence of SIDS apparently related to cosleeping practices there is no distinction between improper and proper cosleeping habits, which very definitely needs to be made.
*Note: Bottlefed babies should not cosleep directly in the bed, but should be placed in a separate bassinette or crib, using the room sharing method as opposed to the bedsharing method.
2. More Feedings and more sleep
Bedsharing makes breastfeeding more convenient and studies show that both mothers and infants spend more time sleeping than those who sleep separately. Perhaps because of the convenience or perhaps baby and mother are more keenly aware of each other, bedsharing “practically doubles the amount of breastfeeding sessions,” (McKenna) which in turn increases a baby’s exposure to mom’s antibodies reducing the possibility for illness. This increase in feeding is important because the low-calorie nature of breast milk means more frequent feedings.
“[S]leep-sharing babies tend to breastfeed more, yet disrupt their mother’s sleep less, than babies who sleep alone. Mothers … tend to breastfeed their babies for longer periods of time … Babies who sleep with their parents tend to stay awake for shorter periods of time during the night than solitary sleepers, and … may cry a lot less too.” (BabyCenter UK)
3. More Security
Babies derive an enormous amount of comfort from maternal smells, movements and touch. These things “reduce infant crying while positively regulating infant breathing, body temperature, absorption of calories, stress hormone levels, immune status, and oxygenation.” (McKenna) This is true whether bedsharing or room sharing.
The Trouble with Cosleeping
In addition to the suffocation risk indicated above when a baby bedshares with mom and dad under less-than-ideal circumstances (those risks are significantly reduced if room sharing), the main disadvantages associated with cosleeping may come more from inconvenience than anything else.
Maintaining a love life can be tricky with a baby in between. Your sleep may not be as sound and satisfying as when your baby sleeps alone—another reason, perhaps, to consider room sharing instead of bedsharing.
However, the solutions to these minor inconveniences are relatively simple and certainly shouldn’t keep parents from making the choice to cosleep.
One potentially more “annoying” complication, however, is getting the baby to sleep in his/her own room. In that case, “[t]ransitioning to the crib by 6 months is usually easier – for both parents and baby – before the cosleeping habit is ingrained and other developmental issues (such as separation anxiety) come into play.” (KidHealth.org)
Darlene Oakley is a freelance writer for EmpowHER.com.
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“Cosleeping” Breazeale, Tami. The Natural Child Project. Web. Apr 9, 2012.
“Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies do not and Should Not Sleep Alone” McKenna, James J., Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame. Web. Apr 9, 2012.
“Crib-Sleeping Vs. Co-Sleeping” Oderko, Patty. Parenting.com. Web. Apr 9, 2012.
Cosleeping and Your Baby. KidsHealth.com. Web. Apr 9, 2012.
The pros and cons of co-sleeping. BabyCentre UK. Web. Apr 9, 2012.