Closet Co-Sleeping

I’ve wanted to write about some parenting things for awhile now but haven’t really had the time or energy to sit down and research and write. Things have been very interesting lately. I guess I’m coming out of a “slump” (understatement) and I’ve been cooking and cleaning a lot, on top of working on several art requests (which have really kept me busy). I’m also trying to fit in a work out but all the time I devote to each of these things obviously takes away from my time with Isaac (except maybe cooking and cleaning thanks to highchairs and slings/wraps). He plays pretty well independently, but I don’t want to take advantage of that, and of course after awhile he’s ready for me to be done drawing or painting. So, we also spend time together throughout the day. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t need to be putting more responsibilities into my schedule, but this morning happens to be the perfect time to write (not to mention I know what I want to write about, which helps).

I’ve kind of been held back from exploring much of the parenting and health side of this blog because I know most of my readers are Christians interested in reading spiritual matters (especially considering that’s almost all that I’ve blogged about from the beginning), but I’d like to be free to write about those things as well.

Since I’m pregnant though, birth and babies and parenting and health have been all that’s on my mind. There are things that we didn’t do with Isaac right away that I know I want to do this time and one of those things is co-sleeping or more accurately, bedsharing.

My journey to learning about these things started with just a handful of specific topics; everything else I kind of just assumed was correct – like the admonition to never, ever sleep with your baby and the dangers of having a baby in the bed. It wasn’t until much later that I accidentally discovered the other side to that warning.

We started gradually with Isaac. For the first three months he exclusively slept in a bassinet by our bed. Then we moved and tried the crib, but at around four months, once he woke up early in the morning, I’d bring him to bed with us and he’d sleep the last few hours there. I don’t remember when we officially committed to him sleeping with us. Probably four months. And for a few nights, Thailer slept on the couch because of my paranoia.

We’ve co-slept since then, and my husband doesn’t sleep on the couch anymore.

The thing about co-sleeping and the deaths that have been involved, is that it needs to be done safely. What those reports don’t say is that the parents were most often on drugs or medications or had been drinking, or they were sleeping in unsafe environments (ex. many have died from parents using water beds while co-sleeping). Just like crib safety, there are guidelines that do need to be followed to sleep safely in the bed. But it is not more dangerous than using a crib, and can actually be much safer than the crib.

So that’s where we’ll start. Why  consider bed-sharing? Read this excerpt from “Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent” describing a two-month-old and her mother being studied while sleeping together:

“…Two rooms away, anthropologist James McKenna watches the needles on a twelve-way polygraph jump in tandem as Jenny and Amy move physically, change their sleep levels, and then drift off. The polygraph charts graphically what McKenna sees on the video screen-needles jump in response to electrical output, marking the scratchy lines across a roll of paper. And even a novice can see that the lines for mother and baby follow a similar pattern.  The pattern of brain wave activity, heart rate, muscle movement, and breathing are similar because the pair is experiencing a mutual arousal, moving together up, across and then down through various levels of sleep. And elfin grin spreads across McKenna’s face-he’s seen this pattern often, but it never fails to amuse him to be able to watch nature so clearly play out the mother-infant bond, even in sleep. This work, along with his background in primate behavior, as convinced McKenna that most of our notions about infant sleep are culturally constructed and dangerously at odds with the biological and emotional needs of babies. “If you have a baby,” McKenna says whenever he has a chance, “sleep with it.”” p.110

In almost all cultures around the globe today, babies sleep with an adult and children sleep with parents or other siblings. It is only in industrialized Western societies such as North America and some countries in Europe that sleep has become a private affair…” p.112

“The fear over overlaying haunts many parents in Western culture today. Most believe it is possible to roll over and squish a baby or suffocate it under a mound of blankets. But as infant sleep researcher McKenna notes, babies are born with strong survival reflexes and they will kick and scream before they let anything clog their airways. The simple evidence that most babies around the world today sleep with a parent and they are not dying from suffocation should be enough to convince parents that it’s pretty difficult to roll over on a baby and not notice.  True, soft mattresses and plush pillows represent a very real risk of suffocation; also, if the baby is wrapped so tightly it can’t express its natural instincts to push something away, there could be a problem. But Western parents who fear they will suffocate babies are wrong. In a healthy atmosphere, where parents are not intoxicated, on drugs, or obese, the chance of killing an infant by overlaying is zero.” p.122

Dr. Sears also outlines scientific benefits of co-sleeping, some of which I will include here:

Stable physiology
Studies show that infants who sleep near to parents have more stable temperatures 2, regular heart rhythms, and fewer long pauses in breathing compared to babies who sleep alone 3. This means baby sleeps physiologically safer.

Decreases risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
Worldwide research shows that the SIDS rate is lowest (and even unheard of) in countries where co-sleeping is the norm, rather than the exception 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Babies who sleep either in or next to their parents’ bed have a fourfold decrease in the chance of SIDS10. Co-sleeping babies actually spend more time sleeping on their back or side 1 which decreases the risk of SIDS. Further research shows that the carbon dioxide exhaled by a parent actually works to stimulate baby’s breathing 11.

Long term emotional health
Co-sleeping babies grow up with a higher self-esteem, less anxiety, become independent sooner, are better behaved in school 12, and are more comfortable with affection 13. They also have less psychiatric problems 14.

Safer than crib sleeping
The Consumer Product Safety Commission published data that described infant fatalities in adult beds. These same data, however, showed more than 3 times as many crib related infant fatalities compared to adult bed accidents15. Another recent large study concluded that bed sharing did NOT increase the risk of SIDS, unless the mom was a smoker or abused alcohol16.

And touches on the benefits of cosleeping for the nursing pair:

Cosleeping from birth is recommended by La Leche League International, the world’s leading breastfeeding organization (LLLI, 1997), as well as by many professional lactation consultants (Heinig, 2000). The benefits of cosleeping to the nursing couple include increased access to nursing with less disturbance of sleep for both mother and infant. According to sleep lab studies, cosleeping mothers actually nurse their infants more frequently throughout the night, but upon awaking for the morning have little recollection of those interactions. Despite frequent arousals during the cosleeping studies, the mothers reported that they got more sleep cosleeping than they did sleeping apart from their babies (McKenna et al., 1994)

Finally, Jamie Lynn Grumet at addresses three common cosleeping myths that you can check out here, as well as API’s benefits of co-sleeping here.

There is so much more evidence that points to the increased safety and protection against SIDS of co-sleeping but I can’t possibly go into it all. And I also won’t be covering sleep-training, which we don’t practice. Maybe another day.

But I want to emphasize co-sleeping safety. Just as having a firm crib mattress, removing pillows, blankets, toys and crib bumpers, as well as placing baby on back are essential rules to follow for safe crib-sleeping, there are important co-sleeping rules as well.

First of all, smoking, prescription drugs (and illegal ones, too), drinking, and being overly tired are all red flags. Parents who are influenced by any of these should not bed-share. Obese parents are also discouraged from sharing a bed with their baby, as this can be dangerous.

Bed-sharing families should use firm mattresses with tight-fitting sheets, and follow the same crib rules: keep pillows and blankets away from baby and mind any crevices baby could fall into such as the space between bed and headboard.

Babies should not bed-share alone with anyone other than mother. The mother is the only one that biologically responds to baby in the unique way that was shown in the excerpts above. Also, older children should not sleep next to a newborn.

Do not co-sleep on couches– many tragic deaths have been recorded from babies being stuck between parent and the back couch cushion.

Long hair should be tied back and be mindful of the clothes you wear: no strings, ribbons or jewelry.

No pets in bed with baby.

Both parents should be aware of the co-sleeping arrangement. This is definitely important for babies that may start out in a crib for the first half of the night and then sleep in the bed for the rest of the night. The safest position is between mom and the wall or rail. Nevertheless, dad needs to be aware when baby comes into the bed.

Fortunately, we have a pretty great bedroom setup (it’s evolved as Isaac has aged, but this is what we currently do):


We do use blankets and a very flat pillow, but we didn’t until Isaac was around a year old and beyond mobile.

If you don’t have this arrangement option, there are also bed-rails made specifically for adult beds, you can get a bigger bed, push the bed against the wall or, as many families do, push two beds together. We would love a low-rising, Japanese-style bed but it’s not in the budget. Nevertheless, you can also just put the mattress on the ground or remove the bed frame if you’re concerned about rolling. We also kept pillows on the floor around the bed.

You can also use a “co-sleeper.”

Finally, do your reading. Look up more safety tips, and find honest research. And do what makes you comfortable. I used to be very paranoid when we started but as Isaac grew and became more mobile and as it became more commonplace, I didn’t give it a second thought (except when I thought about how happy I am with our routine ;)). Each family is different, so find what works for you, but I encourage you to be open to things your mind has previously been closed to.

One last word: though studies indicate the incidence of SIDS is lower in cases of safe bed-sharing, this does not mean it would be eradicated if everyone were to bed-share. Though the number is significantly smaller than the many babies that die from SIDS alone in a crib each year, babies also have died from unknown causes while bed-sharing safely (not from suffocation like everyone assumes when they hear about death and bed-sharing).

It is much less likely while safely co-sleeping, but it’s important to know that it has happened so we can be prepared. If you aren’t confident enough to know that it wouldn’t be your fault, then I’m not encouraging you to dive in despite your discomfort and apprehension. But I do encourage you to research more and see what happens.

Simply: do what works for your family, while being educated. You know what’s best.

My main point in writing this is to dispel some very common assumptions that have made it difficult for our family to be open about this particular parenting choice (i.e. we’re mostly “closet co-sleepers”).

What I haven’t addressed are comments referring to “spoiling”, “independence” and the idea that I should worry about my own health and well-being and get him used to his own bed. None of these concerns have any scientific basis and actually the science is against those assumptions. I may write about that, but those perceptions influence the basis of so many parenting decisions that it really needs it’s own article.

Suffice it to say that Isaac is very independent, we are very happy and co-sleeping is a huge factor that has enabled us to continue nursing at 15 months (another topic for another article). And if anything can make a child spoiled I would say basic love and affection wane in comparison to the abundance of gifts and “things” and “stuff” most families shower children with.

Recommended reading:

***James McKenna’s (quoted above) Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory website, articles and videos***

“Our Babies, Ourselves” by Meredith Small

“Beyond the Sling” by Mayim Bialik

The Natural Child Project articles on sleeping


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