When I was pregnant the first time, I had expectations about where and how my baby would sleep. I had set up a pack-n-play across the room from us, a good 15 feet away from where I rested my head so I could easily access him in the middle of the night. Our baby would sleep in there a few weeks, then, before he got too used to being in our room, I would transfer him to his crib in the room next door, where he would sleep blissfully through the night.
Oh, sweet naivety.
A Brief Overview of Our Experience
The night of Levi’s delivery, he slept skin-to-skin on Kevin’s chest for a few hours, then the rest on mine. It felt good and right, like he belonged there, snuggled up between my breasts. Anything different would have felt unnatural, unsafe.
The next day, we brought him home. And when it was time for bed, I looked at the pack-n-play across the room from my bed, and suddenly those 15 feet felt like 15 miles. I looked at my precious baby, then looked at the pack-n-play, and said to Kevin, “That’s too far away.”
Fast forward three years and a few months, and Levi, now three years old, generally starts the night on a mattress at the foot of our bed, and Lucy, age one, in a pack-n-play a foot from our bed. Some nights, especially cold ones or one when we are exceptionally tired, we all just fall asleep in each others arms. In any case, every morning, all four of us wake up in our queen sized bed.
Needless to say, my expectations on how and where my children would sleep changed. It certainly was not my plan to have it this way. The issue of infant sleep was more of a stressor than any other topic for me, and I really wrestled with what the best thing was for us as a family (you can read my article on my struggle with sleep-training and why we ended up bed-sharing here). But co-sleeping is what has worked for us, and I’m happy to tell you why we’ve fully embraced it.
What is Co-Sleeping?
So what is co-sleeping? It is simply sleeping near your child. Dr. James McKenna, co-sleeping expert, defines it as a child being within “sensory range” of the care-giver. If your child sleeps in a crib in your room, you are co-sleeping. If you sleep with your child in your bed, you are also co-sleeping, but, more specifically, bed-sharing.
In 2016 the American Association of Pediatrics announced that children should share a room with their parents for their first year of life, though not in the same bed, to help prevent SIDS. This recommendation still stands, that parents should co-sleep with their infants, and it makes sense. The nearer you are to your baby, the easier it is to meet their needs, feed them when they awake (which is often, according to biology, in order to promote breastfeeding and preventing the baby from sleeping too deeply, potentially resulting in SIDS), and pick up on signs of distress.
So why does co-sleeping get such a bad wrap?
In most cases, people think co-sleeping and bed-sharing is interchangeable. It’s not. Bed-sharing is really what people are concerned about, and with some good reason. All you have to do is look up “bed-sharing deaths” and you can find some horrific stories of accidental asphyxiation. Stories like these strike fear into any new parent.
Scenarios of SIDS and/or SUID (sudden infant death system) are often tied to one or multiple risk-factors: baby being put down on his stomach, being put down on soft surfaces, being put to sleep with loose bedding or stuffed animals, overheating, and/or the child being exposed to smoke (either in utero or after birth). Particular risk-factors for bed-sharing include sleeping with a parent who smokes, drinks, has taken medication, or is extremely tired, and sleeping on a couch or other unsafe sleep surface. Premature and formula-fed babies are at higher risk for SIDS and SUID than their counterparts.
Does SIDS happen, even without any of those risk factors? Sadly, yes. Do bed-sharing accidents happen? Also, sadly, yes.
Bed-Sharing Can be Done Safely
The reality is, though, many parents do end up sleeping with their baby, whether it’s intentional or not. Pediatricians are now looking on how to best educate parents on a safe sleep environment in order to prevent SIDS/SUID.
But bed-sharing itself shouldn’t be cause for fear, according to co-sleeping expert Dr. James McKenna. Many nations across the world practice co-sleeping and bed-sharing today, many with a significantly lower rate of SIDS than the United States.
In fact, experts such as McKenna argue that, under the ideal circumstances, bed-sharing is the optimal situation for babies, even able to prevent SIDS (arguing that the near, in-tune mother will not only regulate infant’s breathing and body temperature, breastfeed more frequently, and sense infant distress, even subconsciously).
What are those ideal circumstances for bed-sharing? If the baby is sleeping un-swaddled with her breastfeeding, non-smoking, sober mother on a safe surface. (More on how to co-sleep safely soon).
Because we could co-sleep safely, we did. Here are some reasons why.
Reason to Co-Sleep: It’s Natural
We all have at least a few bedtime books that feature animals. Have you ever noticed where the baby animal sleeps? It’s almost always curled up with or near their parent.
Take, for example, one of our favorites, Guess How Much I Love You:
Or these illustrations from Time for Bed:
Or these from Mama Loves You So:
Isn’t it strange that we read these stories to our babes while snuggling them close, then plop them in a crib and walk away to a separate room, leaving them to fend for themselves?
In the natural world, especially with nursing mammals, the young stay with their mothers. In the book Good Nights: The Happy Parents’ Guide to the Family Bed, Dr. Jay Gordon M.D. and Maria Goodavage point out that nearly all animals co-sleep with their babies. But snakes don’t. Nor do cockroaches, tarantulas, crabs, or fleas.
Now, we can’t base all of our parenting decisions based off of animals, but doesn’t that communicate something? Animals keep their young close to protect them, nourish them, and care for them, yet we, as Americans, are encouraged to push them to independence.
This is not the global human norm. Anthropologically speaking, humans have slept near their babies for most of history until misguided information about the transference of disease drove babies out of their parents’ rooms. Many other cultures in various countries practice co-sleeping and bed-sharing and find it shocking that Americans especially are discouraged from sleeping with their babies.
Many Americans do practice co-sleeping and bed-sharing, although few talk about it because of cultural taboos. It’s strange to me that it is more acceptable for grown adults to sleep with their pets than their children.
In any case, co-sleeping and bed-sharing is a natural thing, and if done safely, is great for some families. We are one of those families.
Reason to Co-Sleep: More Sleep
I fell into bed-sharing with Levi unintentionally and with some fear and trepidation. When I was pregnant with our second, I chose to bed-share right from the beginning. Why?
So I could sleep.
When Levi was a few months old, sleeping in his own room, I would hear him wake through the baby monitor, trudge to the next room, pick him up, nurse him and care for him, lay him back down, as many times as necessary until he was asleep, and it could be up to 45 minutes before I returned to my bed, often to repeat the ordeal again in two hours. We eventually gave up on trying to have him sleep alone through the night, and bed-sharing was a welcomed relief from the sleepless nights.
Lucy, like all babies, woke a lot at night. I just rolled over, brought her into bed, fed her, and let her fall back asleep in my arms. My sleep was interrupted, but in a much more subtle way.
Lucy and Levi both wake up during the night. We value being sensitive to our children’s needs and welcome them to find comfort with us in bed, and we are not so light of sleepers that it drives us nuts. The few minutes of sacrificed sleep to make room for them in bed is nothing compared to knowing that our children are sleeping well with us.
I’m especially grateful to Kevin for embracing bed-sharing. He, who can sleep through a tornado, is the one who is sacrificing the most by having little ones snuggle in bed with us. He chooses to embrace it, even if it costs him the occasional kick or dead-arm, because he has seen the value in it for me and our children. He’s really the champion of our family bed.
We know that it doesn’t work for everyone, and for some, bed-sharing would make them lose a ton of sleep. But for us, it was the most peaceful, effective way of dealing with nighttime waking.
Reason to Co-Sleep: Less Stressful, More Flexible
Trying to keep a stick to a consistent bedtime routine has never worked for us. We tried with Levi, but it was super stressful. It would take nearly an hour to get him down, and we found that it was sucking up a lot of our time without the pay-off of having him sleep soundly for long stretches of time. So we gave it up around the same time we embraced co-sleeping and haven’t looked back.
Co-sleeping has helped us to maintain our fairly social lifestyle. We value our time with each other, family, and friends, and it is easier to allow our children to fall asleep when they’re tired, whether they are in our arms while we visit with friends or in the car on the way home.
There is also no need for nighttime negotiations, a sound machine, a perfect sleep environment, a lovey, or ritual, which means we have more freedom and less stress as parents. It also makes traveling a heck of a lot simpler – all they need is us to feel comfortable, and we are almost always with them.
This, of course, works for us based off of our situation. We often re-evaluate if our lifestyle is interfering with the health or well being of our children. But I can honestly say our children are not worse-the-wear. They are social, adaptable, and generally healthy. This works for us.
According to Good Nights, in co-sleeping nations, bedtime routines aren’t really a thing. We totally see why.
Reason to Co-Sleep: It Feels Good
There’s something sweet about waking up near all the people I love. I enjoy the pre-sleep snuggling and quiet conversations. I love kissing them and laying them down, then resting near my husband, knowing that when they need us, we are within arms reach.
It has made us a closely-connected family. I have dozens of pictures of Levi and Lucy snuggled up beside each other in the calm, morning light. I have sweet swells of joy when I see my children nestled in with their Daddy.
As someone who has sleep anxiety, and who feels most at peace when sleeping with my husband, it also gives me a sense of peace knowing that my children don’t have to experience that hopeless feeling of being awake and alone.
Other Reasons to Co-Sleep
There are many other reasons why people choose to co-sleep with their children. Here are some of them:
- Requires minimal space and less stuff. No need for a nursery, a crib, or baby-monitor in the early years.
- Promotes breastfeeding. According to James McKenna, breastfeeding and co-sleeping work hand-in-hand. Mothers produce the most milk at bedtime, and babies who have it readily accessible nurse more, which produces more milk, which makes breastfeeding more successful.
- Protection and safety in emergency situations. In case of a fire or intruder, your most precious cargo is right there with you.
- Quality time with children for working parents. It’s hard when you see your kids only for an hour or two before bed. Co-sleeping and bed-sharing allows for some quality time for parents and children who don’t see each other often.
- Helps provide a healthy attachment. When children can trust their parents to meet their needs in the early years, they are more confident and see themselves as worthy of healthy, loving relationships. Co-sleeping, as opposed to sleep-training, is a way to meet nighttime needs and establish a basis for healthy attachment.
- Helps prevent SIDS.
We are a Co-Sleeping Family
I know this wasn’t in our plan, but co-sleeping has been a huge and important adjustment to our original plan. We are advocates for safe bed-sharing and co-sleeping, for infancy and beyond. If we would have known what we know now, we would have invested in a huge king-sized bed (ha), but for now, you can find us all snuggled up together in our well-used queen.
Are there times when we miss our own space? Yes. Are there times we get frustrated by getting jabbed by an elbow or foot? Of course. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. None of parenting is. But for now, we see it as an important, natural, easy way for us to meet the needs of our children.
Oh, and the snuggles are just the best.
For more information about co-sleeping and bed-sharing, see my resource page.
Keep an eye out for How-To and FAQs article about co-sleeping soon.