Polar bears should live in the arctic.
Koalas should climb trees.
Sloths should move slowly.
Orcas should live in the ocean.
Human babies should sleep with their mothers.
None of these statements are judgments.
None of these statements are arbitrary.
They’re simply statements of facts.
And although I concede that polar bears can survive in zoos in the tropics, they can’t thrive …because they’re polar bears.
And so too, human babies can survive sleeping separately from their mothers, but they can’t thrive…because they’re human babies.
The fact that stating a biological truth like this is controversial serves to highlight the extent to which our subconscious has become molded by western cultural expectations.
Expectations that were created by men who didn’t base their recommendations on the needs of babies (or mothers), but rather the wants of a 19th century adult-centric society.
Expectations that lead to profits for a multibillion dollar baby industry that thrives by making mothers feel inadequate…and then sells her a gadget to replace…her.
Expectations that propagate the idea that the success of a mother can be measured by the distance she is willing to put between herself and her baby.
And then there is the word ”should” in this statement…it’s a kicker…I know!
It’s a disempowering word I’ve all but banished from my own vocabulary. I make a habit of replacing it with words like can and could, will and won’t. It’s a word that can be filled with all sorts of negative connotations, obligations and judgments.
So I avoid using it in my writing, because mothers hear too many unhelpful “should’s”.
But for this post, for this message that needs to be shouted from the rooftops, there was simply no other word that fit. Why? Because it’s the truth. Babies should sleep with their mothers.
And what’s louder than the whisper of the truth that babies “should” sleep with their mothers is the roar of the lie that babies “shouldn’t” sleep with their mothers.
So, why should babies sleep next to their mothers?
Because it’s in our DNA. By design, we are breastsleepers.
Professor James McKenna, of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, reports that breastfeeding and mother-infant cosleeping have co-evolved, are inextricably linked and that breastfeeding acts as a “hidden regulator” to keep mothers and infants within close proximity to one another at night time. (1)
Babies are born expecting to be close to their mothers most of the time.
As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, American Anthropologist and Primatologist, says, for species such as primates, the mother is the environment.
It is widely accepted that are born nine months prematurely and that they complete their gestation externally, which leads to terms like exterogestation, fourth trimester and kangaroo care.
Birth is merely a point on the journey shared between mother and baby – it is not a beginning nor an end.
We continue to share our immune system with our baby. We continue to regulate their breathing, heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and their emotions. As far as our babies are concerned, all that has changed is location. Mother is still home, day and night.
So, here’s why babies should sleep with their mothers.
Because shared sleep protects the breastfeeding relationship
When a baby sleeps approximately ten feet away from his mother, compared to sleeping next to her in bed, Dr. Helen Ball reports that the number of nighttime breastfeeds can drop by as much as 50-70%. (2)
Researchers in Brazil investigated the role bedsharing plays in relation to breastfeeding. They found that among children who were exclusively breastfed at three months, seventy-five percent of those who also bedshared were still breastfed at age twelve months, compared to fifty-two percent of those who did not bedshare. The researchers concluded that “bedsharing at 3 months protected against weaning up to age 12 months.” (3)
The World Health Authority recommends breastfeeding for at least the first two years, yet western medical authorities promotes solitary sleep. These two recommendations are at odds with one another because solitary sleep dramatically reduces the frequency of nighttime breastfeeding and also increases the likelihood of breastfeeding failure.
Because shared sleep means more sleep for mothers
By being readily available to meet a baby’s physiological and emotional nighttime needs, breastsleeping mothers get more sleep. A study by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, involving a sample of 6,410 mothers of babies 0-12 months of age, revealed that women who were exclusively breastfeeding reported significantly more hours of sleep, better physical health, more energy, and lower rates of depression than mixed or formula-feeding mothers.
While breastfeeding mothers woke more frequently throughout the night to nurse their babies, mothers fell back to sleep faster and also only woke lightly rather than fully as they were much more likely to be bedsharing. Kendall-Tackett also identified a key risk factor for PPD through her research; the number of minutes it takes a mother to fall asleep after being woken. Even the slight variation of taking twenty versus thirty minutes to fall back to sleep (especially when repeated multiple times in one night) can mean the difference between a depressed and non-depressed mother.
New parenthood is exhausting – there is no free pass, no side-effect free shortcut that leads to a land of uninterrupted sleep.
But Mother Nature didn’t design new parenthood to be debilitating. Bedsharing or cosleeping within close proximity is a tool, not a burden or an outdated hippie approach to parenting – it is designed to keep parents sane, happy and as well rested as possible.
Because nighttime parenting choices belong to parents, not doctors
Doctors don’t belong in our bedrooms because normal infant sleep is not a medical issue. So, we need to recognise that when doctors give advice on nighttime parenting it is nothing more than their personal opinion. Why? Because doctors aren’t trained in infant sleep.
The medical profession may have pushed their way into our bedrooms centuries ago but the time has come for mothers to thank them for their concern, kindly take their unsolicited advice into consideration (nothing more) and let them focus on what they do best…practicing medicine. And let mothers do what they do best…mother their babies, day and night.
Modern mothers need to stand firm and be the changemakers our babies need us to be because when pediatricians partnered with formula companies they took advantage of their authority, power and status. Scheduled bottle feeding and uninterrupted solitary crib sleeping became the norm and by the early 1960’s fewer than 9% of mothers in the U.S. left hospitals breastfeeding. (1)
This coincided with the fatal mistake of advising parents to place their babies face down to sleep. As we now know, this was a tragic mistake that led to the needless deaths of thousands of Western babies. In hindsight, mothers would have listened to their own intuition and not doctors – in years to come, will we look back and say the same about solitary infant sleep and non-responsive sleep training recommendations given today?
Because babies thrive with contact (nighttime is no exception)
In young babies, sensations are vital for the formation of connections between neurons. Skin to skin contact and breastfeeding provide all these sensations – touch, smell, sight, movement and taste – they encourage neurons to fire rapidly and wire the brain.
Yet, when mothers and babies are separated for long periods of time the process may be impaired, not only because of the lack of bodily sensations but because separation can cause stress in babies as it elevates cortisol levels, which can be toxic to brain development.
Dr Nils Bergman, a Swedish specialist in perinatal neuroscience, famously promotes “zero separation” between mother and baby in the initial postpartum period and as close to it as we can get during the fourth trimester and beyond for this reason.
In a decade-long study Dr. Ruth Feldman, a Professor at Bar-Ilan University, studied the impact of varying levels of physical contact on prematurely born infants. Her team found that in the first six months of life maternal-newborn skin-to-skin contact resulted in mothers being more sensitive and expressing more maternal behaviour towards their babies. Ten years later children who had received more skin-to-skin contact demonstrated better cognitive skills, executive abilities, more organized sleep, better neuroendocrine response to stress and more mature functioning of the autonomic nervous system. (5)
No matter how technologically advanced our world becomes human touch cannot be replaced with inanimate objects no matter how soft and fluffy, expensive or well marketed they are; touch is our most primal form of communication, requiring no subtitles, translation or explanation.
Yet, in western society touch is becoming akin to an endangered species. Tracy Cassels, PhD., of Evolutionary Parenting, suggests that on average, infants are being touched by another human only 12-20% of the time which drops below 10% before babies reach their first birthday. These statistics should stop us in our tracks and make us reassess modern parenting practices.
Why we need to create a new normal, whether a mother can breastsleep or not
This post isn’t about fueling the mummy wars. It isn’t about saying that one way is right and every other way is wrong.
It is about supporting mothers to make their own choices based on biological norms, intuition and evidence-based research.
It is about lifting mothers up to have the courage to make their own choices rather than succumb to peer pressure.
It is about recognising that women’s bodies are magical; we have the superpower to literally fuel the growth of another human being…in our sleep.
Where babies sleep (or where we tell people they sleep) now has more to do with peer pressure than physiology and that needs to change. As long as we pretend that the solitary sleep is the norm, we are setting our compass to a false north. When we do that we can’t help but lose our way, and then we’re destined to spend the rest of our lives trying to find the way back to the connection we were seeking all along.
This isn’t to say that all mothers want to or can breastfeed, nor that all mothers want to or can bedshare safely. Far from it. But if we can acknowledge that human babies are designed to sleep next to their mothers, that it is normal and comes with a whole raft of innate benefits, then when that isn’t possible for whatever reason, we can at least take measures to minimise the gap between biological norms and modern parenting.
When we align ourselves with this truth we can create a village that supports the mother in what she truly needs; with hands on support, not another quick fix in the form of a gadget, schedule or traditional sleep trainer.
We can minimise the risks of postpartum depression as we put mothers in a position to benefit from the hormonal protection biological motherhood provides as well as aligning her expectations with the reality she will experience, rather than setting her up for inevitable “failure”.
We can empower fathers to see the value of the incredible support they provide to new mothers, to bond with their babies in ways that are appropriate to him and to trust the process as it unfolds…knowing that the 50/50 of day to day parenting takes months or years to even out.
But when we reject biological norms, we set ourselves up for frustration and we open ourselves up to take desperate measures as we try to “fix” the wrong problem. Yet, if we accept and surrender to the fact that babies should sleep next to their mothers, we can make changes in our lives to meet that need and thrive together.
Of course there are always exceptions to any rule – some babies crave their own space. But for the most part, babies sleep best when they’re next to their mothers.
If we can be brave enough to swim against the tide of convention and adjust our perspectives, we begin to see nighttime parenting for what it is; a unique and wondrous opportunity for deepening connection, for stretching resilience, for letting go of judgment and perhaps one of the biggest parenting lessons of all…to accept the as is of the moment and to find our flow and rhythm within the reality of nighttime parenting.
For bite-sized evidence based research on everything you need to know about your baby’s sleep, check out the Good Science Sleep Guides.
- Why babies should never sleep alone: a review of the co-sleeping controversy in relation to SIDS, bedsharing and breast feeding, McKenna J, Dade T, Paediatr Respir Rev. 2005 Jun;6(2):134-52.
- Ball, H, Reasons to bed-share: why parents sleep with their infants, Journal Of Reproductive And Infant Psychology, Vol. 20, No. 4 2002
- Santos IS, Mota DM, Matijasevich A, Barros AJ, Barros FC. Bed-sharing at 3 months and breastfeeding at 1 year in southern Brazil. J Pediatr. 2009;155(4):505-9.
- Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, RLC, FAPA1, Zhen Cong, Ph.D. Thomas W. Hale, Ph.D. 2011 The Effect of Feeding Method on Sleep Duration, Maternal Well-being, and Postpartum Depression, Clinical Lactation, Vol. 2-2, 22-26
- Ruth Feldman, Zehava Rosenthal, Arthur I. Eidelman. Maternal-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life. Biological Psychiatry, 2014; 75 (1): 56 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.08.012