A preceding article (Cosleeping and baby safety) gave an overview of the risks of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) or unexpected crib death, as well as precautions to ensure babies’ safety. While cosleeping with young babies (sharing a parental bedroom) is recommended by all experts, bed sharing is a controversial practice due to the risks it can entail.
According to various North American and European studies, approximately 25% to 50% of new mothers share their bed with their baby at least occasionally. Why do mothers or parents choose to share their beds with babies? Most often it is because the proximity facilitates breastfeeding, as well as promotes sleep for both mother and baby. In a study conducted by Dr. Helen Ball, in England, 72% of mothers having breastfed for at least one month have shared their bed with their baby during the first few months, while only 38% of others have. Most babies begin the night in a crib near the parents’ bed, are picked up by the mother and brought to bed for the first nightly feeding, then spend the rest of the night there. It would also appear that approximately 25% of parents who bottle-feed their baby also share their bed: for child-rearing philosophy reasons, by necessity (irritable or sick baby, family travel), for enjoyment, or due to lack of space.
Two groups of mothers (parents) exist in regard to bed sharing: “intentionals”, who do it by conviction, and “reactives”, who do it by necessity, because it is the best way to soothe their baby and to ensure slightly more comfortable nights for parents. The majority (just over 60%) of mothers in both groups agrees that cosleeping is good for comforting babies, for their emotional health, and to bring the family closer. An almost identical majority also agrees that the practice disturbs their sleep, that of their partner and their relationship as a couple. A “reactive” mother, who chooses to continue despite the drawbacks, says, “That’s life with a young baby”; another, “It wasn’t what we had planned, but it’s what my child needs”. Certain “intentional” parents (20%) report having occasional differences of opinion with their partner on the organization of sleeping surfaces for babies and parents. One mother stated, “Sometimes I would like to snuggle up with my boyfriend and there’s a baby between us. Sometimes I wake up because I’ve been kicked in the chest. I know what I am doing is good for my child, and it is a joy to see his sweet smile when I wake. But I have to say it isn’t always easy.”
A study by Barone (2002) highlights the differences between babies who sleep alone in their room and those who share their mother’s bed. Lone sleepers tend to sleep more fitfully, so possibly experience more stress: more movement, starts and cries (more is required to call mother to them). Babies who share a bed are less agitated, startle rarely, spend more time in light sleep phases and wake more often than lone sleepers. Mothers who breastfeed do not usually complain of these more frequent waking periods (and feedings) during the night: their sleep cycles synchronize with their baby’s, so their waking periods are shorter and less disruptive than those of mothers who must get out of bed to care for their baby.
Anthropologists J. McKenna and H. Ball observed bed-sharing mother-baby couples in laboratory and home settings in the United States and England, using infrared cameras. Behavioral differences were noted between breastfeeding and bottle-feeding mothers. The first group almost always positioned themselves on their side, with their baby’s face at chest height, legs pulled up beneath their baby’s feet and one arm above their baby’s head. This maternal barrier prevents their baby from shifting towards the pillows and headboard, which could pose a problem. And in this position, mother cannot turn over and crush; father could not crush the baby in his sleep either without first waking mother.
Once asleep with their baby, bottle-feeding mothers don’t have the benefit of synchronized sleep cycles and so don’t react as quickly to their baby’s motions and sounds. They often position their baby at the top of the bed, with their baby’s head at face level. Also, they often turn their backs on their baby, unlike breastfeeding mothers who face their baby almost all night. Experts recommend that mothers who bottle-feed let their baby sleep in a crib by the bed.
It should be added, however, that mothers who are used to sharing their bed position their baby closer to them and respond more rapidly to their baby’s needs than those who are not used to the habit. Could it be that the sensitivity that most breastfeeding mothers spontaneously exhibit could be developed by others through experience? Once the information absorbed, it is up to each mother or parental couple to experiment and respectfully choose what is best for their baby and for themselves.
Psychotherapist, pre- and perinatal psychology specialist
This article is presented by Maman Kangourou (www.mamankangourou.com)
- http://cododo.free.fr/ A francophone site on cosleeping, written by Nathalie Roques, and full of information, suggestions, and accounts of the author’s personal experience.
- http://www.nd.edu/~jmckenn1/lab/index.html An anglophone site on cosleeping, by Dr. James McKenna, American anthropologist and world authority on cosleeping.
- McKenna, James J. Sleeping with your baby: a parent’s guide to cosleeping. 2007. Washington, DC: Platypus Media, LLC. An excellent little book to inform parents on the elements of risk they need to be aware of to make the most of their cosleeping experience with baby. Available online (under $20) or on www.chapters.indigo.ca or www.amazon.ca
- In 2002, American magazine Nurturing published a special issue on cosleeping. Its articles are still relevant today and available in a booklet entitled “Sleeping with your baby: the world’s top scientists speak out” at www.nurturing.com/shop or 1-888.810.4150. The January-February 2009 issue of Nurturing contains an update on the most recent scientific data on cosleeping, in “The science of sharing sleep”, by L. Gettler and J. McKenna.