nighttime parenting

Co-Sleeping: How To

Before we had kids, Kevin asked me, “What would you say about our future kids sleeping in bed with us?”

I scoffed. “Never happening.”

“Really?” he asked. “Why?”

I went onto explain that I wasn’t allowed to sleep in my parents’ bed. I would sneak into their room and my Dad, who is a light sleeper, would compassionately give me advice and send me back to my room. Children just weren’t to be in their parents’ bed.

Kevin, on the other hand, was often welcomed into his parents’ full-sized bed whenever he had trouble sleeping. “I always felt so safe between them,” he recounted dreamily.

“Well,” I said, “That’s cute. But it’s not going to happen in our house.

Well, Kevin often likes to remind me of that conversation. Because we’ve had one or both kids in our bed every night for the past three and a half years.

(I’ve made a habit of eating my words.)

Co-Sleeping and Bed-Sharing, though it’s Un-Popular

We chose to co-sleep and then bed-share for a variety of reasons; because it felt right, in order to get more sleep, because it’s natural, because it helped with breastfeeding, because it better enabled us to care for our children during the night, because we enjoyed it.

That doesn’t mean I always felt confident about co-sleeping, particularly bed-sharing. There were times when I was afraid that it may not be safe for my baby. This idea was perpetuated by the negative media and messages that are common in American culture. But after reading and researching, and, ultimately, going with my gut, I found peace in bed-sharing with my infant. Now, we practice co-sleeping and bed-sharing with both of our kids, who are currently three and one. And I’m so glad we do.

Our little family bed.
Teaching Safe Co-Sleeping

When we were pregnant with Levi four years ago, we sat in on a parenting class at The Birth Center and the topic of co-sleeping came up. Generally, what they said was this: “We are under obligation to recommend that you not bed-share. The reality is, though, if you are breastfeeding, you are more than likely going to end up bed-sharing. So we are going to teach you how to do it safely.”

Recently, this has become the attitude of more professionals. Bed-sharing happens way more often than people think. Therefore, it is important to be educated on how to do it safely.

The good news is, you can co-sleep without sharing a bed. Many parents opt for using a side-car or co-sleeping bassinet, having a crib or bassinet right next to the bed, or using a sleeping basket, which allows for most of the benefits of co-sleeping with less risk.

Safe Seven Qualifications for Bed-Sharing

If you choose to bed-share, though, there are specific specifications that should be met. La Leche League has created a “Safe Seven” list for low-risk bed-sharing:

You must be…

  1. A non-smoker
  2. Sober (no alcohol, drugs, or medications that make you drowsy)
  3. Breastfeeding

The baby must be…

4. Healthy
5. Kept on his back when not breastfeeding
6. Unswaddled

Both must be…

7. On a safe surface (not a couch or armchair)

These are the foundational premises for safe bed-sharing, and as a family, we met the top six qualifications consistently. I confess, we often napped with our infants on our chest on a couch, but never when over-tired. Often, the other parent was nearby during those naps. But generally, this should be avoided.

Bed-Sharing: A Safe Sleep Surface

A safe sleep surface is paramount for bed-sharing families. A safe sleep surface is firm with pillows and blankets far away from baby’s face. No waterbeds, plushy mattresses, or huge comforters, please!

Ideally, a mattress should be on a floor so that a child would not roll off or get stuck between a headboard and mattress.

If baby is under a year old, she should not be placed beside a sibling. The baby should sleep directly next to her breastfeeding mom on a safe sleep surface.

I recommend reading this short article by co-sleeping expert, Dr. James McKenna for more detailed information on what makes for a safe-sleeping environment.

Taken from Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory of the University of Notre Dame. 
Bed-Sharing Positioning

Baby is safest when sleeping beside the breastfeeding mother on his back, away from a pillow and near mom’s breast (see image above). Mom can nurse baby on one breast, then slightly reposition herself by laying more on her stomach so baby can access the second breast without needing to move the baby.

If there is any concern of Dad rolling onto baby, Mom should serve as a barrier between baby and Dad.

I always felt best sleeping on my side in a fetal position around my little babies, their little feet resting against my legs. I always had my arm around them, so if they were between Kevin and me, it didn’t matter. As they grew, I propped them up on my arm. Still, they sleep best cradled against my or Kevin’s arms.

I can attest to the crazy, God-designed connection that occurs between nursing mom and child. Somehow, I always had them in a protective posture, even in sleep, and could nurse them with hardly rousing at all. Yet if they rolled or got near an edge, if our comforter got near their faces, I knew. It’s truly amazing stuff.

Bed-Sharing with Siblings

When we were pregnant with Lucy, we wondered, how will this work with two kids? Experts advise keeping siblings separated while in the family bed for baby’s first year. When Lucy was much bigger and capable of moving freely, we allowed for the two to be near each other.

Bed-Sharing is Not for Everyone

While we have enjoyed bed-sharing with our infants, it is certainly not for everyone. In the following cases, bed-sharing should be avoided for the safety of the child.

Do not Bed-Share if: Substances are Involved

Smoking, alcohol, or drug use (illegal or legal) can greatly impact the way parent and baby sleep. Parents are still encouraged to sleep near their babies, but not with their babies under these circumstances. Many cases of SIDS or SIUD are connected to a parents’ use of substances, so it’s in the baby, and the parent’s, best interest to avoid bed-sharing under those circumstances.

Do not Bed-Share if: Baby is Formula-Fed

While bottle-fed babies are encouraged to be near their parents, they should never share the same bed or sleeping surface. Formula-fed babies sleep differently because of how their body digests formula, and often sleep more soundly and for longer periods of time. Also, biologically, breastfeeding mothers are highly in-tune with the child, even subconsciously, and, when sober, are programmed to shield their body around the child in a protective posture, keeping the child safe.

Do not Bed-Share if: You or your Partner is Uncomfortable

It is important that both parents are on board and feeling confident about bed-sharing. Feeling at all nervous about suffocating a child will not make for restful sleep for anyone!

Do not Bed-Share if: Baby was Premature or has Health Issues

It is a good idea to avoid bed-sharing with an especially tiny or struggling infant. Definitely opt for a side-car or sleeping in the same room as baby so you can be responsive to his nighttime needs. Co-sleeping can actually be a life-saver for at-risk babies, so keep them nearby in a crib or bassinet, a side-car or co-sleeping bassinet, but don’t share a sleep surface with them.

We are a Co-Sleeping, Bed-Sharing Family

We still proudly co-sleep with our children. In fact, we have both of them in our room with us nearly all of the time. Lucy still starts her night in the pack-n-play beside our bed. Levi has his own room with a toddler bed in it, but we have found it easiest on all of us  to start him off on a mattress at the foot of our bed.

Our sleeping arrangements.

Generally, the children start in their own “beds” at the beginning of the night so Kevin and I can have some snuggle time. Then, when they wake up, we welcome them into bed with us. Usually, it’s Kevin, Levi, Me, and Lucy, although now that Lucy’s bigger, she and Levi sometimes find their way in the middle.

I actually really like it. And I’m so glad I decided against my original plan.

Embracing The Family Bed

The Japanese, who co-sleep with their children through their teens, have a special phrase for co-sleeping called “kawa no ji”. Basically, it is a play on the kanji symbol for river.

I love that idea, that there is life in the family bed, that there is safety for a child, like a river nestled between two mountains.

We have fully embraced co-sleeping for now. I have no idea how long we will venture on with it, but I can say that it has been a valuable part of our family culture, one that I truly recommend to anyone who is willing to give it a try!

Want to read more?

Read why we co-sleep here

Read about how we started co-sleeping here

Check out my co-sleeping and bed-sharing resource page here

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