When a baby is on the way, most parents spend hours, days or weeks preparing a beautiful nursery with a gorgeous crib. Society tells us that babies sleep on their own, in a crib, in a different room from their parents. More recently, health authorities have started suggesting that the safest place for a baby to sleep is in a crib in the parents room, because proximity to the parents is important but many consider bed sharing to be dangerous. In attachment parenting circles though, co-sleeping is quite popular and there is great opposition to the faulty conclusion that bed sharing is unsafe.
Over the next week or so, I plan to publish a few posts on co-sleeping, starting tonight with the benefits of bed sharing.
Benefits of Bed Sharing
There are many benefits to sharing a bed with your baby. For me part of it is that I just love being able to cuddle with my kids, but there is more to it than just that:
- Ease of breastfeeding: One study found that bed sharing infants breastfeed about twice as often as regular solitary sleepers, with the total duration of nightly nursing episodes amounting to almost three times of what is observed in lone sleep conditions (see p. 124 of Natural Parenting - Back to Basics in Infant Care - by Regine A. Schön and Maarit Silvén in the Evolutionary Psychology journal) . This can be particularly helpful in the case of infants that are not gaining enough weight, as they will be encouraged by the proximity to nurse more frequently. It is also helpful to working and pumping moms that struggle to pump enough during the day, since nighttime nursing can increase their supply and also decrease their baby's daytime needs. Also, it is easier to just roll-over and pop out a breast to nurse your baby than to get out of bed, go to another room, sit in a rocker for 20 to 30 minutes, and then return to bed (especially if this happens several times per night).
- Better sleep for mom and baby: For us and for many co-sleeping families, co-sleeping means more sleep and generally less anxiety about sleep. In our case, our daughter actually slept through the night most nights while sleeping next to us but woke frequently if we were not there. Our son never slept through the night as an infant, but responding to his needs was easier when he was in bed with us. Mothers whose babies sleep in another room have to get out of bed to respond to their baby. This causes the mother to wake up more fully and makes it more difficult for her to fall back asleep. Also, she is less able to rest while tending to her baby than a mother who is in bed with her baby. This is backed up by research by M.D. Gordon and S.L. Hill in 2008 that found that co-sleeping families were less likely to believe their infant's sleep was problematic than non-co-sleeping families. Those with the greatest levels of stress/concern were non-c0-sleepers that don't practice cry it out, suggesting that responding to your baby when you do not sleep with your baby can be very stressful.
- Mothers can react to baby: Co-sleeping mothers are more in tune with their baby's sleep and can take action to keep their baby comfortable and safe during the night. Parents that have a baby in a separate room and use a baby monitor will hear their baby cry, but may not hear more subtle signs that their baby is uncomfortable. Missing those subtle cues can mean that the baby needs to wake more fully in order to alert the parents, which can result in more effort and time required to resettle the baby.
- Bed bonding results in more independent children: Generally speaking, research around secure and insecure attachments show that children that are securely attached to their parents become independent more easily and those that are insecurely attached end up being anxious or overly dependent. As it relates to bed sharing specifically, one study (reported on p.141 of Natural Parenting - Back to Basics in Infant Care) found that "routinely sharing the parents’ bed in infancy has been associated with greater self-reliance and social independence at preschool age than a history of solitary sleeping (Keller, M. A., and Goldberg, 2004)." Other studies have also consistently reported higher self-esteem among children and adults that co-slept during childhood.
- Allows working parents to connect with their child: As I mentioned in my post about finding balance as a working mom, I have heard so many working parents complain about how little time they have with their kids during the week. Some parents arrive home from work at 6pm and have their little ones in bed by 7pm. We do manage to sneak in more than an hour of time together in the evenings. Usually I end up having close to 3 hours with my kids at home before bedtime. But being together doesn’t end there. I share a bed with one or the other of my kids every night (we play musical beds sometimes). I find this time to be an essential way of staying close even when we can’t spend as much waking time together as we would like.
That said, co-sleeping is not for everyone. Some parents are not able to sleep comfortably with a baby in bed with them and some babies are easily woken by the noises or movement of others in the room. In other cases, parents may not be willing or able to give up certain things that they would need to give up to make their bed a safe place for their baby to sleep. In those situations, parents may wish to consider having the baby in a crib and possibly even in another room depending on the factors involved.
Next up...Is co-sleeping safe?
The Benefits of Co-Sleeping (International Chiropractic Pediatric Association Newsletter)
What are the advantages of having our baby sleep with us? (by Dr. James J. McKenna)
What are the long term effects on my baby of sharing a bed? (by Dr. James J. McKenna)