BY HEATHER M. NUGENT, HOMESCHOOLING MOTHER, WRITER, REGISTERED NURSE, DUNKIRK, NY
In recent articles, I have explored subjects such as breastfeeding, babywearing and natural birth. If you are familiar with these topics, you may have noticed that they are addressed under the parenting philosophy known as “Attachment Parenting”. This month, I focus on another of the principles of Attachment Parenting: Nighttime Parenting, or more specifically, co-sleeping.
When you really think about sleeping practices among animals, it makes sense that mammals sleep with their young. In fact, a look at the animal world gives us no other species of mammal that relegates its young to its own sleeping space away from adults.
Why is this? Because this is the way we are designed to interact with our newborn children.
Nursing an infant is more convenient when mother and baby sleep in close proximity. One recent study in the news confirms what nursing mothers already knew, that they get more sleep when they do not have to get up and change rooms in order to nurse baby during the night. Frequency of feedings is a fact of life with breastfed babies. Nature designed mother’s milk to be so efficiently digested that it does not remain in the baby’s small stomach for very long. As much as babies were designed to breastfeed, mothers and babies are simply designed to sleep near one another.
Gaps in newborn breathing are normal in the first few months of life. Research has established a possible connection between the breathing pattern of mothers and their co-sleeping infants.
Infants receive cues from their mother’s breathing patterns (ie “take a breath after you exhale”) that may encourage the baby to develop more mature breathing habits earlier than non-co-sleeping infants. Mother and baby also tend to have coordinated sleeping cycles and dream at the same time, thus timing mom’s arousal periods with baby’s and encouraging increased sensitivity and being “in-tune” with her baby.
Sharing baby’s sleeping schedule is an excellent way for the whole family to get the sleep that can be so precious and rare for some families when a baby arrives. Mothers sleeping close to babies can respond more quickly to small indicators of arousal or distress (such as a whimper) before the baby proceeds to the stage of a full-blown cry for attention, food, or physical comforting. This also teaches the baby that the world is a safe place where his needs are important and are met in a timely manner. What could be a more important lesson to teach a little person brand-new to the outside world?
One of the most basic benefits of co-sleeping is that it provides uninterrupted time for skin-to skin contact and emotional bonding. In our culture, many moms are not able to be present for their babies during the day once their six week maternity leave has expired. Time spent snuggling at bedtime and first-thing in the morning, as well as the constant, reassuring presence of mother and father for the baby during the sleeping hours can provide parents with a way to feel the connection with their babies they may feel is lacking when most of their waking hours are spent apart from their precious newborn.
Mainstream media has recently been abuzz with the results of a study on the safety of co-sleeping and a potential relationship to SIDS. Because of the results of this study, the AAP has chosen to take the position that co-sleeping or bed sharing with an infant or toddler is categorically unsafe. What is interesting to many co-sleeping proponents, including physicians, midwives, nurses and other healthcare professionals, is that other independent research groups have looked at the exact same data and determined that co-sleeping or bed sharing is safer than not sleeping with your baby.
Any case of infant death is devastating. Looking beyond the emotion to the raw data, however, we can learn from these deaths. During an eight-year study on SIDS it was found that about 34,000 cases (about 4250 per year) of infant death occurred with infants sleeping alone in cribs. During that same study period, 65 cases of infant death occurred involving an infant sleeping in an adult bed. This means that 1.5% of the total cases of infant deaths in the United States during this period involved co-sleeping or bed sharing. The remaining 98.5% of infant deaths occurred when infants were sleeping alone in cribs. It is not a huge leap to determine that sleeping close to your baby may actually protect your baby from SIDS-related death.
Sadly, cases of infant death related to bed-sharing almost always involve a parent who has failed to follow the simple safety guidelines for co-sleeping. Remember when the term “baby on board” was everywhere, reminding us to be extra careful when driving with a little one in the car? The same can be applied to bed-sharing practices. Co-sleeping is a conscious choice that should be made each and every time an adult enters a bed with a small child. Be aware: baby in the bed.
Common sense guidelines for co-sleeping include: Nobody using drugs or alcohol should sleep with a baby. Ever. Those who are significantly overweight also should not share a bed with a baby. Those who find themselves in this category may want to utilize the Arms Reach Co-sleeper or another tandem-style infant bed that fits close to the adult bed but provides a separate space for baby to sleep. Infants should not sleep with older children. Just as with a crib, curtains, blinds, headboards or footboards may present potential hazards and should be kept a safe distance from baby. There should be no stuffed animals, pillows or fluffy bedding on or near baby.
Whether or not to co-sleep with your child is a personal choice that is best made armed with recent, reliable research. If you choose to co-sleep, or are interested in learning more about the benefits, The Natural Child Project and Attachment Parenting International are excellent sources for accurate, current information about the safety of co-sleeping.
Heather Nugent is a homeschooling mom of two who lives in Dunkirk. She works outside the home as a labor and delivery nurse in Buffalo. Heather also works as a midwife's assistant, labor doula and massage therapist.