Co-sleeping. Perhaps one of the most controversial of parenting practices. Most of us do it, few admit it. Babies are supposed to sleep in their own bed not yours, or so society would have you believe.
I remember being told at antenatal classes that co-sleeping was no longer considered unsafe. Still, the idea was terrifying. Bringing my baby into my bed – what about SIDS? Not for me I thought. Instead we bought a Snuzpod and didn’t think much more about it.
For the first few weeks R slept in the snuzpod. She slept in the baby box. She slept in my arms. The problem wasn’t her sleep, it was mine. I would wake up in the early hours with R asleep on my chest, unable to remember when I fell asleep. Staying awake while feeding at all hours of the night is not just hard, it’s fighting against everything your body is programmed to do.
Eventually I decided enough was enough. Staying awake while feeding was hard, no matter how many trashy novels I read on my Kindle to try to stay awake. But if I couldn’t stay awake, I could at least make sure that I was sleeping in a safe position. And so we started co-sleeping.
Safe sleep seven
The Lullaby Trust recommends that parents choosing to co-sleep with their baby should follow the safe sleep seven:
- No smoking (for you or your partner if they are in the same bed)
- No alcohol (again for you or your partner)
- Breastfed baby
- Full term baby
- Baby on back
- Light clothing and no swaddle
- Safe surface
Neither N or I smoke so that was easy, and as I was breastfeeding I wasn’t drinking alcohol either (I do now occasionally have a drink on a weekend). As we had a Snuzpod I was able to shift R down the bed so that we were level with the crib. I would then lay on my side curled around R in the c-position. With the duvet wrapped around my waist and R on her back in a sleeping bag I felt much better about falling asleep while feeding her. In the unlikely event that she moved she would only roll into the crib and I would leave the side of the Snuzpod zipped down just in case (but she never moved).
I was intrigued to find out that co-sleeping is only recommended for breastfeeding mothers. Both babies and mothers do not sleep as deeply when breastfeeding. This means that you are much more likely to wake when your baby stirs. I actually found that I slept so much better when R is next to me as I can check she’s ok without having to get up.
When R was at that early stage of waking up in the night to be fed co-sleeping made it much easier for me to quickly latch her and then go back to sleep. I found that often she just needed that little bit of comfort to send her off to sleep again too. Perhaps it is because breastmilk contains higher levels of the hormone melatonin which is needed for sleep at night but I found that when I was relaxed and sleepy R would find it much easier to fall asleep too.
Which all makes sense really – our bodies have evolved over the millennia to keep us and our babies safe. So when we find a safe place to sleep our bodies are programmed to help our babies to sleep too.
This relationship between breastfeeding mothers and their babies has been termed “breastsleeping”. Studies have shown that co-sleeping helps the breastfeeding relationship, meaning mothers who co-sleep are more likely to breastfeed their babies for longer. I can certainly understand why that would be the case. If I was having to get out of bed and sit in a nursing chair to feed R (perhaps in a separate room), settle her and then return to bed, I would have wanted to stop breastfeeding much much earlier. No one wants to sacrifice sleep, so the temptation to stop breastfeeding and switch to formula is going to be much greater if your baby isn’t close to you at night.
We have such an obsession with babies’ sleep. As adults we tend to not sleep independently nor do we sleep through the night without waking. Yet we place these expectations on babies.
When people ask me whether R sleeps well I say yes. If they ask whether she sleeps through the answer is no. The thing about co-sleeping is your baby may not be a great sleeper but chances are you’ll both get better sleep. That dreaded four month sleep regression was never an issue for us because I wasn’t having to get out of bed. If R woke I would just give her a cuddle, latch her to my breast and go back to sleep.
In fact it’s very rare for me to have a bad night’s sleep. R is now almost nine months and most nights will spend the first part of the night in her cot. When she wakes (normally at about 2am) I’ll pick her up and bring her back to the bed where she will sleep next to me until morning with no further wake ups. I’ve written a separate post about our naps and sleep routine.
I’m not suggesting that co-sleeping is the magic silver bullet that will solve all your sleep problems but if your little one is struggling to sleep and you can do it safely I’d would definitely say give it ago. Even now that R has transitioned to her cot we regularly co-sleep for at least part of the night as she is much more likely to wake in her cot than when she is next to me.
Tips for co-sleeping
If you are thinking of co-sleeping I recommend using sleeping bags as this allows your baby to have their own cover that won’t move during the night. I would use my arm as a barrier to keep pillows well out of the way and wrap the duvet around my waist. Overheating was by far my biggest concern but this did mean that I would sometimes be cold, so I would often wear a fleece dressing gown to keep my top half warm.
I’ve spoken to friends who have co-slept and often their partner has ended up moving to the spare room or sofa. N didn’t move to another room but that was a personal choice – he can sleep through pretty much anything and our bed is big enough that R and I had plenty of space. It also meant that he was on hand to do any night time nappy changes in the early days.
I found that the cuddle position for co-sleeping could be uncomfortable so I also really recommend taking the time to stretch out when you wake. It’s not ideal for your baby to sleep between you and you partner so you may find you end up sleeping on one side (and feeding on one side too). Finding a comfortable position is therefore really important as you may be there all night.
If you have a next to me type crib like a snuzpod you can use it as a barrier to give you extra reassurance that your baby isn’t going to go anywhere in the night. I found that R wouldn’t move much anyway (even now that she can crawl really well she tends to stay put at night).
Finally do what feels right for you. I think that it is easy to terrify yourself with the horror stories about co-sleeping but actually the risk of SIDS is very low if you are following the safe sleep seven. Breastfeeding and co-sleeping can be one of the safest options for you and your baby but if it doesn’t feel right for you you don’t have to do it.