Shared or Solitary Sleep: Which Is Safest For Babies?

Night

The laminated sign pinned to our hospital room’s wall was bold and clear-cut, leaving no room for interpretation. Bed sharing is unsafe. Newborn babies are safest sleeping in the clear plastic container provided.

My husband and I smiled knowingly, grateful we’d already educated ourselves on infant sleep. We felt empowered we’d made our own informed decision, based on scientific research and rooted in millions of years of evolutionary history, rather than the influence of modern day fear and consumerism.

I felt confident to share our bed with our baby and the benefits it promised excited me. But, only hours after our son’s birth I thought I should respect hospital policy. So, I nursed our baby, placed him in the hard plastic container and watched him fall asleep. I listened to his breathing, hopping up every two minutes to double check he was ok.

The problem was, I couldn’t sleep. My little man who I’d nourished and protected for 42 weeks inside me, was now in a plastic container. It felt wrong. Every fibre of my being was instinctively screaming to hold him. I couldn’t stand it any longer.

So, I scooped up my son and felt him nuzzle into me. I relaxed and drifted off to sleep and our son hasn’t left our bed yet.

I’m happy to say we’re not alone. Dr James McKenna, the world’s leading authority on mother-infant cosleeping, suggests at least half of all parents cosleep at some point during the night, proving bed sharing isn’t the exclusive territory of peace loving, ignorant, futon obsessed hippies. It’s just that most parents dare not admit it in our separate sleep dominated society.

A recent study of 600 parents, by Gentle Parenting Advocate, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, revealed 46 per cent of parents lied to a doctor, midwife or health visitor about cosleeping for fear of being judged. I understand why. Mainstream media preaches cosleeping parents are endangering their babies lives. But, nothing could be further from the truth.

Sharing sleep promises untold benefits for babies and parents, while crib sleeping in a separate room may affect the long term emotional, mental and physical health of our babies. Let’s dig a little deeper to understand why cosleeping is so healthy.

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THE MOTHER IS THE ENVIRONMENT

Human babies are born early out of necessity making them neurologically premature at birth. Why? Because in order to walk on two legs rather than four our pelvis reduced in size meaning babies evolved to be born early so they could fit through the birth canal.

The end result? Newborns’ brains are tiny – a mere 25% of their ultimate size, compared to most mammal’s brains which are 60-90% of their adult size at birth. Human babies are the most vulnerable, contact dependent, slowest developing primate of all. They’re designed to be dependent…for a very long time. Parents literally are a baby’s survival strategy.

In his book Touching, The Human Significance of the Skin, Dr. Ashley Montagu emphasizes the significance of the mother-baby relationship, describing it as being “naturally designed to become even more intensive and interoperative after birth” than during pregnancy. He describes babies as being “extero-gestates”, completing their development in a “fourth trimester” in the outside world.

“There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone” Dr Winnecott, Child Psychologist

So, what does that mean for parents? It means we need to give babies an enormous amounts of love, touch and attention so they can thrive, not just survive. And we can’t overdo it – despite what some may say it’s biologically impossible to spoil a baby with love. Night time parenting, through bed or room sharing, provides a natural opportunity to do just that and it’s how babies are meant to sleep. Sleeping in a separate room in a crib is an alien concept – babies would never have suggested it!

Especially during the first three months of life, or the fourth trimester, mother’s bodies are indeed the baby’s environment. It’s where they need to spend most of their time. When resting on their mothers’ or fathers’ chests, skin-to-skin, babies breathe more regularly, use energy more efficiently, grow faster, and experience less stress.

BABIES AND PARENTS SHARE A PROTECTIVE PHYSIOLOGICAL CONNECTION

In her groundbreaking book, Our Babies, Ourselves, Meredith Small describes a study in which infant reactions to mothers, fathers, and strangers, were measured. “An infant girl was brought into a lab and set in a plastic seat that was curtained off from distractions. The baby was then approached by her mother, then her father, and then a stranger.

Chest monitors on the baby and the adults showed that the baby synchronized her heart rate to that of the mother or father when they approached, but she did not synchronize her heart rate to the stranger’s. The data suggests that babies and their caretakers are entwined in a homeostatic relationship, with the baby clicking in with the parents to achieve some sort of balance.”

Babies who sleep close to their mothers also experience “protective arousal,” a unique sleep state enabling them to wake more easily if their health is in danger. Studies show infants who sleep near their parents have more stable temperatures, regular heart rhythms, and fewer long pauses in breathing compared to babies who sleep alone.

REDUCING THE RISK OF SIDS

Worldwide research shows SIDS rates are lowest or unheard of in countries where cosleeping is the norm, rather than the exception. Babies who sleep in or next to their parents’ bed have a fourfold decrease in the risk of SIDS. Cosleeping babies spend more time sleeping on their back or side rather than on their front which is a well-known risk factor for SIDS.

Dr McKenna performed a study investigating the protective effects of cosleeping against death from SIDS. He concluded during bed sharing there is increased environmental carbon dioxide, as a result of maternal respiration, which may stimulate infants to breathe. In addition to the protective effect of maternal carbon dioxide, sight, touch, sound, movement, heat and smells all contribute to infant arousal throughout the night which may offer protection against SIDS.

LIKE PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY

Breastfeeding and cosleeping go hand in hand. Cosleeping makes breastfeeding easier. And breastfeeding makes cosleeping safer. How?

Breastmilk is relatively low in fat and digested in two short hours meaning young babies nurse often and sleep relatively lightly at night. Professor Jeanine Young reported, “An analysis of the results of eighteen studies show that the risk of sudden and unexpected infant death is significantly reduced for mothers who exclusively breastfeed and for a longer duration of breastfeeding”.

But society expects babies to sleep soundly. “Is he sleeping through the night yet?” is the anthem people blindly sing when they spot a new mother or father. It sometimes feels as though our success as new parents is assessed by the number of hours our babies sleep. And if you’re cosleeping and breastfeeding, lightly waking every two hours you may be told what you’re doing is abnormal. So where did this artificial expectation come from?

Formula. Formula. Formula.

Cow’s milk is meant for young calves, not humans. Calves are a “nested” animal. Nature designed them to nest quietly in the grass for long periods of time to avoid predators. Cow’s milk is high calories and fat, calves nurse infrequently and sleep for long periods. Humans on the other hand are a “carrying” species. Babies expect to be carried or held close most of the time, which facilitates frequent nursing as human breastmilk is low in calories and fat.

So, what happens when a “carrying” species drinks the milk of a “nested” species? Easy. They sleep longer. They sleep deeply. And they feed less often. The introduction and aggressive marketing of formula has given parents a false expectation of what normal infant sleep looks like. Infants sleeping deeply for long periods of time is biologically abnormal and increases the likelihood of SIDS.

SO, WHICH IS SAFER? SHARED OR SOLITARY SLEEP?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission published data showing over 3 times as many crib related infant fatalities compared to adult bed accidents. If practiced intentionally by informed parents bed sharing is undeniably safer for babies than isolated crib sleeping. But, that’s a big IF.

There are many risk factors, which can make bed sharing dangerous. If either parent smokes, is obese, intoxicated or if the baby is bottle fed, bed sharing should never be practiced. But, even if you can’t share a sleep surface, many of the benefits outlined in this post can be experienced by room sharing or a sidecar arrangement. Just because bed sharing can be practiced recklessly doesn’t mean we can’t practice it safely. People can choke when eating. It doesn’t mean we stop eating, instead, we learn how to eat safely.

Hospitals and government organizations are doing families a great disservice when they issue blanket statements suggesting bed sharing is dangerous. Wouldn’t the medical profession serve families better by identifying individual risk factors and teaching parents how to share their beds responsibly?

When we inform ourselves our perspective quickly shifts. The onus should not be on science to prove what humans have been doing for millennia is safe. Rather crib manufacturers, pacifier companies and formula producers pushing a commercial agenda must prove their alternative is somehow better.

I spent three days in the hospital after my son’s birth. The sign on the wall blended into the background and nurse after nurse whispered in hushed voices they bed share at home, but the official lie they must tell is crib sleeping is best.

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COMMENTS
  • May 14, 2016
    Kevin

    What a great article!! It’s been a hard transition for my little guy and this offered me some much needed relief. You hit the nail on the head when you said what other parents might say.

    Let’s just do what is best for OUR babies and THEIR schedule, not ours. Kudos to you, looking forward to more posts!

    • May 14, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Oh wow, thank you Kevin! So pleased you enjoyed the post. I’ve written a couple others on baby sleep you may like – here and here. And I’ll be writing more about it too. Just getting some time out now down at a local cafe for an hour to write…it’s a labour of love but I’m passionate about it and makes it all worth it hearing comments like yours. We’re building a wonderful community here. Enjoy your weekend 🙂

  • May 28, 2016

    Hi Tracy! I’ve just found out your blog recently. One thing I have to admit that I really love how insightful and dedicated information you put in every article.
    This is really a great article! Again, thanks so much for sharing it!
    Catherine recently posted…Everything You Need to Know About Video Baby Monitor – Infographic

  • May 31, 2016
    Amie

    Great article!
    I’m on baby number 3, all have been breastfed and cosleep with me, It would be impossible for me to count the number of times I’ve had formula suggested as a means to stop them waking at night…even though I’m not complaining!!

    I look forward to reading more of your blog.
    I’m very aware that they will all eventually sleep longer in their own time. My oldest two (4 and almost 3) sleep like a dream and go to bed well. It baffles me as to why outsiders seem so concerned about a new babie’s night time sleeping habits!!

  • October 25, 2016
    Cheri

    Love this article. We just came back from my son’s 6th month appt. the pediatrician told me he should be sleeping through the night by now. He also told me that breastfeeding at night can lead to tooth decay. I feel confident that my baby waking several times a night normal but he made me worry a little about the tooth decay info. What are your thoughts on this?

    • October 25, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Cheri – happy you enjoyed it! I’m glad you asked as I’ve wondered the same as my son still nurses. I’ve always thought surely it can’t cause tooth decay as breastfeeding at night time is natural and if that were the case kids would have had cavities teeth forever. Anyway I did some research and found this wonderful article that will address all of your concerns on KellyMom. Check it out here.

      And here’s a helpful excerpt:

      “One of the reasons for nighttime bottles causing tooth decay is the pooling of the liquid in baby’s mouth (where the milk/juice bathes baby’s teeth for long periods of time). Breastmilk is not thought to pool in the baby’s mouth in the same way as bottled milk because the milk doesn’t flow unless the baby is actively sucking. Also, milk from the breast enters the baby’s mouth behind the teeth. If the baby is actively sucking then he is also swallowing, so pooling breast milk in the baby’s mouth appears not to be an issue.”

      “Until relatively recently, the only studies that had been done were on the effects of lactose (milk sugar, which breastmilk does contain) on teeth, not the effects of complete breastmilk with all its components. Breastmilk also contains lactoferrin, a component in breastmilk that actually kills strep mutans (the bacteria that causes tooth decay). A study in the March/April 1999 issue of Pediatric Dentistry utilized extracted teeth to obtain most of its results and studied children only for determining the pH changes in dental plaque (Erickson 1999) – this study “concluded that human breast milk is not cariogenic.” A Finnish study could not find any correlation between caries and breastfeeding among children who were breastfed longer (up to 34 months) (Alaluusua 1990). Valaitis et al concluded, “In a systematic review of the research on early childhood caries, methodology, variables, definitions, and risk factors have not been consistently evaluated. There is not a constant or strong relationship between breastfeeding and the development of dental caries. There is no right time to stop breastfeeding, and mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed as long as they wish.” (Valaitis 2000). Another review in 2013 (Lavigne 2013), “revealed that there was no conclusive evidence that prolonged breastfeeding increased the risk of early childhood cavities.””

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