Who are the Co-Sleepers?
There is a hidden world deep within quiet, conservative suburbia. A place where rebels and free-thinkers give knowing glances to one another as they pass by. This world is full of people from all walks of life, all incomes, social statuses and backgrounds. They read, they research, they make changes to their lives to accommodate the tiniest voices in their lives. They change their own behaviors to provide for the smallest’s needs and they look just like everyone else.
You probably know more than one family who does it, they just don’t talk about it. You might even be one of them… quietly masquerading as a “conventional” parent with all the expected baby items like cribs, bassinets, cradles and swings. It all looks completely normal, but if anyone looked closely, they’d see something was amiss…
That bed sheet on the crib has never been moved, mussed or changed. The cradle is still in pristine condition, full of dolls, folded blankets and extra clothes… and that bassinet? It’s beautiful there in the corner.. full of extra toys and odd socks.
But… where is the baby? Not in the cradle, not in the crib… in fact, the baby’s room is empty and silent. So where is baby?
Snuggled in bed with mom and dad, of course!
This is the secret life of parents who co-sleep and there is a pretty good chance, if you yourself are not one of them, you know someone who is. Don’t think so? Check out these numbers:
26% of ALL American babies co-sleep at least some of the time with their parents.
44% of ALL American babies co-sleep at any given time on a regular basis.
68% of ALL American babies co-sleep occasionally.
These statistics provided last year by the CDC clearly indicate that parents on a nationwide level, are practicing bedsharing with their babies as a common, yet unspoken standard. What may further surprise you? The idea of the family bed does not extend only to infants and toddlers. Bedsharing is open to the entire family for all children, all the way up through school age and sometimes beyond into early tween years. In fact, an 11 year old sleeping nightly with the family is not unheard of or even considered strange in some circles.
There are hundreds of tutorials online teaching parents new to bedsharing and the concept of the family bed how to create the perfect, comfortable sleeping space for their family, anything from multiple beds pushed together, to cribs leveled with a larger mattress and then tethered together to create a side-car sleep arrangement. There are literally hundreds of co-sleeper cribs, bassinets and cradles available to provide baby a safe sleep as close as possible to mom and dad and with all of these fancy gadgets and new-bed concepts, nothing seems to replace the tried and true standard of baby sandwiched between mom and dad on a cool, tight sheet with no blankets or pillows.
But what about the dangers? What about all the child/infant deaths that happen because they are on safely tucked away in cribs? What about the CDC warning to never co-sleep with your babies?? Isn’t this irresponsible parenting? To answer this, let’s first look at just a few of the benefits.
Physiological/Biological/Neurological Benefits of Co-Sleeping
Just as baby is designed to feed at its mother’s breast, it is designed to sleep there, as well. Neurological, instinctual responses to touch, smell and movement during resting hours provide optimum body and brain function to take place in the growing infant. Everything from breathing and oxygenation of the blood, increased immune system function, body temperature regulation and so many other factors, all increase in efficiency while reducing stress levels and allowing proper neurological development to occur when sleeping near the mother. The short version; babies are happier and grow better when they sleep with mom. This in turn, helps mom sleep more peacefully, increasing her ability to get solid rest and everyone wins.
Co-sleeping increases the hormones that produce and sustain breastmilk, allowing a mother to more easily maintain her milk supply. This is especially valuable for the working mother who may not get as much skin-on-skin time with baby during the daylight hours to have this hormonal effect while awake.
Co-sleeping allows for what is called “dream feeding” where an infant can be at the breast while the mother is sleeping and nurse on demand throughout the night. This provides comfort and security for the baby, hormonal release for mom that encourages baby to nurse and tells mom’s brain to make more milk. This also completely removes the issue of waking multiple times in the night to pick up a screaming baby to feed them, because they’re already there and they don’t need to cry, or to even wake you to find their food supply. This practice is often recommended by lactation consultants when a mother is concerned about milk supply, as the body naturally adjusts to the increase in night feeding by supplying more milk.
Co-sleeping allows mom and baby’s heart rate and breathing patterns to synchronize while in sleep, not only allowing them to be more in tune with one another, but also to help baby breathe more consistently. Babies who co-sleep have a far less percentage of broken breathing patterns when sleeping with mom. This connection also allows for deeper yet, safer sleep by aligning the two sleepers to react intrinsically to one another’s needs. I.E., if baby moves, mom will move to accommodate.
Co-sleeping also affects dad in a positive way! The worry most fathers have, is “I will roll over on the baby in my sleep!” however, nature has provided for this fear by increasing a subconscious awareness that protects the baby, literally from the moment a new father holds his child for the first time. This is done through the release of hormones such as oxytocin, prolactin and modifying testosterone levels. All this creates changes within the male that keep the small creature’s safety at the forefront, igniting care-giving responses and elevating empathy and attentiveness, even in sleep. Additionally, babies of fathers who exhibit these hormone changes are more attentive to the fathers, provide better eye contact and contentment with the father.
With all these obvious benefits, why are people so afraid of it? What are the dangers?
Any situation can be dangerous under the right circumstances. An unbuckled car seat can be deadly for a child during a crash. This does not mean we refuse to allow children to ride in cars, it simply means we ensure proper measures are taken to prevent accidents before they happen.
For all the over-paranoid warnings, some caution IS warranted
If the adults in bed are under the influence of any kind of drug, sleeping medication, alcohol, or anything that may impair their awareness during the night, accidents could occur.
Mom and dad should both (ideally) be non-smokers, no smokey clothing should enter into the bedroom and anyone who has come in contact with smoke should shower before bed with baby. As second and third hand smoke has been linked to SIDS and upper respiratory problems, when within close quarters to skin or fabric that has been drenched in smoke and even through residue on hands and skin, a baby may suffer breathing problems and accidents could occur.
*On a related note, In a recent study, Japan’s SIDS percentages dropped directly in concordance with the reduction in maternal smoking. Remove the smoke, the likelihood of a disaster goes down by a sharp percentage.
Water beds, extremely soft tempur-pedic or gel foam mattresses are not recommended, as the baby may sink too far into the foam and dangers could arise from lack of motility.
Nursing while sitting up in bed, with the baby resting on mom’s lap on a nursing pillow can present a danger. Baby can slip off the breast and between mom and the pillow, unable to breathe properly and silently suffocate. Baby may also slip off the other direction and roll in a precarious position on the bed or even onto the floor before mom is able to wake and take action.
Another unfortunate danger was discovered as a direct result of the warnings NOT to bedshare;
In response to the warnings against co-sleeping, there was a sharp increase in accidents occurring on couches and armchairs. Mothers took to trying to stay awake while feeding their babies in nursing chairs and couches, ultimately falling asleep and putting the child in even more risk than if they had simply laid down in bed, side-by-side.
Nursing chairs can be so comfortable that mom will sleep and baby can roll right off onto the floor causing serious injury or becoming stuck between chair arms and mom’s body.
Couch sleeping presented a similar problem, both with dangerous falls, and with baby becoming stuck in sleep between cushions.
Natural, side-by-side co-sleeping on a smooth, firm surface away from fluffy pillows, where baby has access to the breast and to the comfort of his mother’s arms, can provide hours more sleep, better nutrition, enhanced mood for baby and mom and a stronger bond between the whole family.
Psychological Benefits of Extended Co-Sleeping
But what about unhealthy attachment? What about children who can’t sleep on their own? Won’t that damage them as they grow?
Neurologically speaking, the human body and mind was designed to always be in close proximity to its mother through the early years. This standard changed due to societal convention, not because it was no longer biologically or neurologically beneficial.
Long term co-sleeping is beneficial to children by providing them the security to be independent earlier. They may even be more likely to sleep on their own all through the night earlier than their crib-bound buddies. Co-sleeping has also been linked to an increase in self-esteem, bravery to try new things, an increased attention to detail that allows them to be more well behaved and overall, more psychologically stable.
An often overlooked factor, is the reality that children who cannot sleep on their own would not be able to do it whether or not they had ever attempted to sleep in cribs. Sleep studies have shown that many times, children who suffer from night terrors or other sleep disorders can rest peacefully when in the comfort and safety of a family bed. This would be the case whether or not they began their bedtime routines during infancy in their own room or not.
When asked, older children who still sleep in the “family bed” are open and honest about it. They feel comfortable because they ARE comfortable. They share that they feel safe and content when surrounded by their family. They are more deeply connected to their parents and siblings as a result.
So what’s the verdict?
Ultimately, co-sleeping is yet another ancient practice that falls in line with how humans were designed and modern convention rejects it as a strange taboo. As taboo as it may be for “conventional” parents, families everywhere are engaging in the practice because they know it’s the right thing to do. As more information about neurological, infant development becomes available warning against sleep training practices, the more parents who engage in this practice are having their instincts scientifically backed up, giving courage to the movement.
While some still co-sleep secretly behind closed doors, many more are doing so openly, completely impartial to any negative feedback they may receive. They believe it is the right thing to do for their family and most have done the research to intelligently present their arguments for anyone who might ask. Co-sleepers are engaged parents, active parents and responsible parents.
They are all around us. They are us, and we are bravely growing in numbers.
Here are a few links for references if you need them!