Throughout human history, babies have slept in close proximity to their mother or family members. After all, mothers put a huge amount of time and investment into growing a baby, and bringing them into the world. This puts pregnant women at a serious disadvantage as sickness and physical immobility mean we can’t hunt and gather that well, and in potential danger when giving birth. All our instincts have evolved to keep our babies close and protect them against danger – from an evolutionary perspective, having a baby is a risky business and if you’ve got one, you don’t want to lose them!
Babies too, have instincts that keep them close to their primary carers at all times. Human babies are ALL born prematurely – our brains are only 25% developed at birth, making us one of the more vulnerable baby animals around. As creatures with incredibly strong social bonds, it is also of utmost importance during these first months to start the process of becoming social humans, with strong attachments to our family members – it’s the people in our close social group who are going to protect and provide for us when we are vulnerable. Even the tiniest newborns with limited eyesight seek out human faces and they will turn their head towards the scent of their mother.
As I mentioned in the blog a couple of weeks ago about the importance of touch, you cannot underestimate how important human contact is for the comfort and security of a baby – it’s a primary need alongside food.
Why sleep near your baby?
So what has this got to do with sleep? Well, you don’t need me to tell you that babies don’t generally sleep that well. It’s normal for new babies to wake frequently. Their body clocks haven’t developed yet, so they don’t know the difference between night and day. They also need to feed often both day and night. Some babies sleep for a few hours in one go and others don’t. There’s nothing you have done wrong if yours wakes up lots. Human milk is digested very quickly, as it’s high sugar and low fat, so within a couple of hours their tiny tummy is empty and they need more.
A baby that sleeps close to their parents can be fed as quickly as possible when they wake – before they get to the stage of inconsolable screaming that they’ve been ABANDONED. If you sleep near your baby, you may find that you wake a few seconds before they do, as you have registered their early cues and can whip out the boob or the bottle before they wake up properly. This makes it so much quicker to get them (and you) back to sleep afterwards.
Babies spend a much higher proportion of their sleep in light, easily awakened sleep, rather than the deep, dead-to-the-world sleep of older children and adults. This is good, as you actually want your baby to wake up if there’s something wrong. By being in a light sleep they will wake if there’s a problem, either inside their body or in the outside world. Tiring though it is for parents, babies are protecting themselves by being light sleepers.
The international view
In much of the world parents co-sleep (i.e. share a sleeping surface) with their baby and feel it is tantamount to abuse to put a baby in a cot in a separate room! When you start looking at parenting practices in other countries it’s extremely interesting, but that’s a topic for another time. In this country we have been going through a period where bedsharing has been demonised, but I think we are coming to a more nuanced position now. In countries like Japan and China where babies co-sleep with their parents, SIDS is virtually unheard of. It’s just not a thing, so it’s clearly not bedsharing itself that is the issue.
Most of us share a bed at some point with our babies, whether by intention or by accident. Dr James McKenna has produced this excellent video taking us through the research on bedsharing and debunking some of the myths about the dangers. (It’s 18 minutes long, so I wouldn’t expect you to watch it all!) In it he describes how when infant deaths have occurred during bedsharing, it’s not the bedsharing in itself that was dangerous, there was always another factor, such as another child being in the bed, or the bed set-up was unsafe, or the co-sleeping was on a sofa, rather than a proper bed.
The current picture in the UK
When you start to dig into the research and different studies, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what actually constitutes sharing a bed, who else is in the bed, the bedding used, or how the baby is fed. Different studies are measuring different things. It is a confusing picture, which is why health authorities have found it simpler to just advise against bedsharing altogether.
However, 50% of babies have shared a bed with their parents by the time they are 3 months old, which suggests that whatever the advice, people will bedshare with their babies. After all, as the early paragraphs of this article describe, we want to be close to our babies, and they sure as hell want to be close to us.
A note about bedsharing and bottle feeding
Bedsharing is great when you are breastfeeding, as the baby sleeps with their head near your chest and you barely have to move to feed them and get back to sleep asap. If you would like advice on how to feed your baby lying down, come to the Latch Patch at the centre on Wednesday mornings during term time, 10:00-12:00.
“When breastfeeding mothers sleep with their infants, they protect them from potential physiological stressors including airway covering and overheating by their characteristic sleep position (curled around their infants, making a constrained sleep space with their bodies), known as the C-position or ‘‘cuddle curl’’. Their continued vigilance through microarousals prompts regular infant arousals throughout the night. In two small video studies, mothers who had never breastfed were observed to exhibit these protective behaviors less frequently.” (https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/bfm.2019.29144.psb)
Given this, it might be wise to be cautious about sharing a bed with your baby if you have never breastfed them:
“The implications of these studies for bed-sharing by parents who feed their infants formula remain ambiguous.
Although we have some evidence that mothers who previously breastfed, or who commenced breastfeeding and then switched to formula, retain the bed-sharing characteristics of breastfeeders (Uvnas Moberg 2003) it is currently unknown whether parents who have never breastfed can learn to sleep with their infants in the same manner. While it would make common sense to ensure that mothers who have never breastfed, and fathers who sleep alone with their babies, are aware of what safe bed-sharing positioning and behaviour entail we do not currently know whether they are likely to maintain the same level of vigilance and synchrony during sleep that is exhibited by breastfeeding mothers. For the time being some authorities suggest that non-breastfeeders keep their baby in a cot by the bed for sleep.” (https://www.basisonline.org.uk/hcp-bed-sharing-and-non-breastfeeders/)
If you don’t feel happy about the idea of sharing a bed with your baby, don’t worry, you don’t have to do it. There are various options for sidecar cribs that attach to your bed, or you can put the cot or moses basket right next to your bed. You can keep them close without bringing them into bed. Whatever you do, these are the safety guidelines (wherever your baby sleeps):
- Always place your baby on their back to sleep
- Keep your baby smoke free during pregnancy and after birth
- Use a firm, flat, waterproof mattress in good condition
Things to avoid
- Never sleep on a sofa or in an armchair with your baby
- Don’t sleep in the same bed as your baby if you smoke, have drunk alcohol or taken drugs or are extremely tired, if your baby was born prematurely or was of low birth-weight
- Avoid letting your baby get too hot
- Don’t cover your baby’s face or head while sleeping or use loose bedding
The same safety guidelines apply for naps as they do for night time sleep.
According to UNICEF, if no baby co-slept in hazardous situations, we could potentially reduce co-sleeping SIDS deaths by nearly 90%. The avoidable hazards are the problem, not the bedsharing itself.
New international advice states that parents shouldn’t be advised against bedsharing, as long as it is done safely. You CAN take your baby into bed with you, if it suits you and your baby sleeps better that way. It’s not a dirty little secret, and can feel like the most natural thing in the world. If people are more open about it, we can also be more open about sharing the safety guidelines to ensure that when we do share a bed with our babies we are doing it safely. It seems to me that it makes so much sense to expect to bedshare at some point, and plan accordingly, rather than trying to get up in the night to feed or comfort your baby, and then fall asleep in a chair or on the sofa from sheer exhaustion. Find what works for you and your baby – everyone is different and after a bit of trial and error you’ll find the most comfortable way to get the maximum amount of sleep. Even if it’s not very much!