Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Seven Benefits of CoSleeping

By William Sears, M.D.
Posted with permission
Read more from Sears at AskDrSears.com, in The Baby Sleep Book, Nighttime Parenting, The Fussy Baby Book, and other books in the Sears Library collection.


sleep sharing photo courtesy of Michelle A.

There is no right or wrong place for baby to sleep. Wherever all family members sleep the best is the right arrangement for you. Remember, over half the world's population sleep with their baby, and more and more parents in the U.S. are sharing sleep with their little one as well. Here's why:

1) Babies sleep better. Sleep sharing babies usually go to sleep and stay asleep better. Being parented to sleep at the breast of mother, or in the arms of father, creates a healthy go-to-sleep attitude. Baby learns that going to sleep is a pleasant state to enter (one of our goals of nighttime parenting).

Babies stay asleep better. Put yourself in the sleep pattern of baby. As baby passes from deep sleep into light sleep, he enters a vulnerable period for nightwaking, a transition state that may occur as often as every hour, and from which it is difficult for baby to resettle on his own into a deep sleep. You are a familiar attachment person whom baby can touch, smell, and hear. Your presence conveys an "It's okay to go back to sleep" message. Feeling no worry, baby peacefully drifts through this vulnerable period of nightwaking and reenters deep sleep. If baby does awaken, she is sometimes able to resettle herself because you are right there. A familiar touch, perhaps a few minutes' feed, and you comfort baby back into deep sleep without either member of the sleep sharing pair fully awakening.

Many babies need help going back to sleep because of a developmental quirk called object (or person) permanence. When something or someone is out of sight, it is out of mind. Most babies less than a year old do not have the ability to think of mother as existing somewhere else. When babies awaken alone in a crib, they become frightened and are often unable to resettle back into deep sleep. Mom is missing, and she may be gone forever. Because of this separation anxiety, repeated night after night, they learn that sleep is a fearful state to remain in (not one of our goals of nighttime parenting).

2) Mothers sleep better. Many mothers and infants are able to achieve nighttime harmony: babies and mothers get their sleep cycles in sync with one another.

My wife, Martha, notes: "I would automatically awaken seconds before my baby would. When the baby started to squirm, I would lay on a comforting hand and she would drift back to sleep. Sometimes I did this automatically and I didn't even wake up."

Contrast sleep sharing with the crib and nursery scene. The separate sleeper awakens – alone and behind bars. He is out of touch. He first squirms and whimpers. Still out of touch. Separation anxiety sets in, baby becomes scared, and the cry escalates into an all-out wail or plea for help. This piercing cry awakens even the most long distance mother, who jumps up (sometimes out of the state of deep sleep, which is what leads to the most nighttime exhaustion), and staggers reluctantly down the hall. By the time mother reaches the baby, baby is wide awake and upset, mother is wide awake and upset, and the comforting that follows becomes a reluctant duty rather than an automatic nurturant response.

It takes longer to resettle an upset solo sleeper than it does a half-asleep baby who is sleeping within arm's reach of mother. Once baby does fall asleep, mother is still wide-awake and too upset to resettle easily. If, however, the baby is sleeping next to mother and they have their sleep cycles in sync, most mothers and babies quickly resettle without either member of the sleep sharing pair fully awakening. Being awakened suddenly and completely from a state of deep sleep to attend to a hungry or frightened baby is what leads to sleep-deprived parents and fearful babies.

3) Breastfeeding is easier. Most veteran breastfeeding mothers have, for survival, learned that sharing sleep makes breastfeeding easier. Breastfeeding mothers find it easier than bottle feeding mothers to get their sleep cycles in sync with their babies. They often wake just before their baby awakens for a feeding. By being there and anticipating the feeding, mother can breastfeed baby back to a deep sleep before baby (and often mother) fully awakens.

A mother who had achieved nighttime nursing harmony with her baby shared the following story: "About thirty seconds before my baby wakes up for a feeding, my sleep seems to lighten and I almost wake up. By being able to anticipate his feeding, I usually can start breastfeeding him just as he begins to squirm and reach for the nipple. Getting him to suck immediately keeps him from fully waking up, and then we both drift back into a deep sleep right after feeding."

Mothers who experience daytime breastfeeding difficulties report that breastfeeding becomes easier when they sleep next to their babies at night, and lie down with baby and nap-nurse during the day. We believe baby senses that mother is more relaxed, and her milk-producing hormones work better when she is relaxed or sleeping.

4) It's contemporary parenting. Sleep sharing is even more relevant in today's busy lifestyles. As more and more mothers, out of necessity, are separated from their baby during the day, sleeping with their baby at night allows them to reconnect and make up for missed touch time during the day. As a nighttime perk, the relaxing hormones that are produced in response to baby nursing relax a mother and help her wind down from the tension of a busy day's work.

5) Babies thrive. Over the past thirty years of observing sleep sharing families in our pediatric practice, we have noticed one medical benefit that stands out: these babies thrive! "Thriving" means not only getting bigger, but also growing to your full potential - emotionally, physically, and intellectually. Perhaps it's the extra touch that stimulates development, or perhaps the extra feedings (yes, sleep sharing infants breastfeed more often, and usually for more months or years, than solo sleepers). Not only does sleep sharing benefit baby as a result of the touch, stimulation and relaxation that comes from the security of knowing mom is close, but her milk supply is also regulated through hormones when she sleeps within an arm's reach of her baby.

6) Parents and infants become more connected. Remember that becoming connected is the basis of parenting, and one of your early goals of parenting. In our office, we keep a file entitled "Kids Who Turned Out Well: What Their Parents Did." We have noticed that infants who sleep with their parents (some or all of the time during those early formative years) not only thrive, but infants and parents are more connected. They are securely attached.

7) Reduces the risk of SIDS. New research is showing what parents the world over have long suspected: infants who sleep safely nestled next to parents are less likely to succumb to the tragedy of SIDS. Yet, because SIDS is so rare (.5 to 1 case per 1,000 infants), this worry alone should not be the reason to sleep with your baby. (For in depth information on the science of sleep sharing and the experiments showing how sleep benefits a baby's nighttime physiology, see SIDS research data.)

Cosleeping does not necessarily mean bed sharing. Some parents simply do not want to sleep on the same surface as their baby, others cannot do so safely in the set up they have. Sleep sharing is an optional attachment tool and includes any sleeping within an arm's reach of your baby. Try it. If it's working and you enjoy it, continue. If not, try other sleeping arrangements. One alternative to bed sharing is the sidecar arrangement: place a crib or co-sleeper adjacent to your bed. (Instructions for turning your crib into a cosleeper.)

New parents often worry that their child will get so used to sleeping with them that he may never want to leave their bed. Yes, if you're used to sleeping first-class, you are reluctant to be downgraded. However, like weaning from the breast, infants do wean naturally and on their own from your bed (usually sometime around two-three years of age). Keep in mind that sleep sharing may be thee arrangement that is designed for the safety and security of babies. The time in your arms, at your breast, and in your bed is a very short time in the total life of your child, yet the memories of love and availability last a lifetime.


Additional information on sleep sharing can be found on the Baby Sleep Research Page

Healthy alternatives to 'cry it out' found on the Sleep Training Research Page

Visit the Safe CoSleeping page on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/CoSleeping

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25 comments:

  1. What about cosleeping with preschoolers? (4+ y.o.) What are the benefits/detriments? Merci! Linda

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  2. Elin, my 8 year old sister and almost 16 year old brother sometimes still prefer to sleep on my parents' floor than in their own comfy beds. :D

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  3. I want to know what else is in that file!

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  4. "The time in your arms, at your breast, and in your bed is a very short time in the total life of your child, yet the memories of love and availability last a lifetime."

    Just love that last part. Perspective is everything!

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  5. We've slept with our son since he was born. It made life so much easier as a breastfeeding mom and just felt right. All 3 of us slept better together. When our son turned 2, we bought a bed for him and put it in our room. He'd sleep in it for most of the night before crawling in to bed with us. We recently moved to a new house, and his bed would no longer fit in our room. We decided to see how he'd do sleeping in his own room. (I was unsure of how it would go, because he'd already been through a big change with a cross country move.) At first, we'd sit in his room with him until he fell alseep. (He knew that we weren't staying, and was fine with that.) Now, he goes to sleep in his own room, by himself, with a flashlight and a book. :) This transition has taken about a month, was done without tears (his or ours!) and was honestly a lot easier than I expected. Our son still comes in to bed with us, but it's around 6 in the morning, after my husband has left for PT.
    I'll definitely bedshare/co-sleep with any future babies we have.:)

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  6. My son and I have been co-sleeping since his birth and he's now almost 5.

    Best thing for us, I hope more families take to it.

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  7. I Love Sleeping with my Babies!!!!!! If i were able to get a bigger bed I would want ALL my babies sleep with me!!!

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  8. and also IT IS AMAZING !

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  9. I love sleeping with my baby! I feel so comfortable knowing she is right by me and if she needs me I am right there for her :)

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  10. Shannyn

    For some reason your comment made me think of a friend of mines pigs. She raises pigs for food and to sell to people who want to breed this old and rare breed of pigs. She keeps them outside all year round and they have little huts to take shelter in. According to the animal welfare rules she must have two huts for the number of pigs she has. However her pigs squeeze into one hut and lay on top of each other in a big happy pig pile... She often jokes about the fact that they have not read the law and do not understand the principals of animal welfare. I think that humans just like pigs can give up some comfort for the company of their flock.

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  11. We cosleep with a five year old and one year old - and I wouldn't want it any other way. :) I can't imagine not having my babies with me at night - I'd be too worried to get any sleep!

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  12. We shared a family bed with our children, and they have all grown into independant adults, who now in turn are cosleeping and nursing my grandchildren....what a wonderful testiment to this sort of lifestyle

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  13. we have a family bed, with the 4 yr old and the 10 month old. it's so comfortable and sweet, I love to wake up in the morning with my baby curled up in my arms and my older son nestled against my side. we all wake up around the same time and smile at each other. this morning the baby was smiling even before he opened his eyes.

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  14. My 13 yr old son has finally decided he wants to sleep in his own room and not on my floor, my 10yr old daughter still wants to sleep on my floor and the nights I make her sleep in her bed it's like the world is coming to a end. My 18month old bedshares w/ me. We do have a close relationship and alot of my family says they need to be sleeping in their rooms, but we like it just the way it is. They will leave when they are ready!! :-)

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    1. Yay, halelujah. My 11 yr old son sleeps with me about one third of the time. When my husband works all night my son and I really love to snuggle all night. He has his own room and bed and loves his sleep there too. My husband (his very loving step-dad) doesn't quite get it and would prefer he sleeps in his own bed every night. I say, no sorry non-negotiable, he can sleep with me as long as he wants, especially if my husband isn't home anyway. When he asks how long it will go on I say "Oh probably till puberty, I expect he'll want a little more...ahem...time to himself shall we say.

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  15. Love, love LOVE co-sleeping and nursing. I can't imagine doing it any other way.

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  16. Still cosleeping with my four and a half year old. It made breastfeeding easier and sleeping easier. Wouldn't have it any other way. Many times I awoke just as she started vomiting to turn her over (when she was ill). What would have happened if she was alone? It's frightening to imagine.

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    1. that has happened to me too, i never would of woken had my son been in another room....

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  17. Is the photo at the top photoshopped funny or does the baby really have 6 fingers? It caught my eye and I just wondered. Awesome article, either way.

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  18. The photo is not photoshopped. Baby is relaxed, sleeping, and her hand is open wide in the 'starfish' position with her 5 perfect little fingers spread.

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    1. It does look like six fingers but if you enlarge the image it is just a shadow from the thumb.

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  19. I am an Indian . An Air Force officer and a doctor.
    I am actually surprised if parents dont sleep alongside their infants and babies.
    Its almost alien to our culture.
    This is done in every Indian home ... except who r trying to ape western lifestyles. Where as the western society is quickly picking up the beneficial practices of Asian communities.

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  20. This is great, I love to read articles by my guru, Dr Sears. We sleep share, but can't tell the in-laws (very traditional, Catholic, family of doctors). However, my baby was born 1 month early, weighed only 2kg and was very small. Once we started to sleep share, she blossomed and thrived. She's now a very healthy 7mo who's at the 50th percentile for her actual (not corrected) age. She's also very smiley, happy and a joy to be around. Thank you for this. If it wasn't for sites like this making me feel okay, I would not have the wonderful experience of sleep sharing and a thriving baby that I have today.

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  21. We co-slept for the first couple of years- Now the kids go to bed in their own beds but we all wake up in a family bed. Our oldest is nearly 5 and we LOVE it. :)

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  22. I co sleep with my son and it is much more beneficial for both of us to sleep together. We both sleep longer are comforted and I always wake up right before he starts to awake. When I practiced placing his bassenet next to me he would wake up too often and I would be exhausted by the morning. My mom suggested that I put him in the bed with me and if it was the best choice I made. Everyone always comments on how happy smart and healthy my son is and I think it's bc of our extra bonding and simulation he gets from his extra feeds and comforted sleep. I think it's a cold and distant thing to be away from your child.

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