Co-Sleeping and Breastfeeding

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A reader asked me to write about co-sleeping and breastfeeding. Although this is something we’ve been doing since around one and a half hours after Ameli’s birth – she was born at 4.40am, we were asleep in our bed by six – it’s still a hard topic to write about because I’ve never really thought about it. We’ve simply just ‘done’ it.

Governments will tell us not to co-sleep, or bed share, as they claim that it reduces the risk of SIDS, yet they acknowledge that it is done in most homes at some point – yet they choose not to talk about doing so safely.

Research has shown various things, and at times all conflicting, but even so the human race has co-slept for most of its existence. It has also breastfed, wet nursed and so on for most of that time.

A study done at the University of Notre Dame, summarises their work thus:

We hope that the studies and data described in this paper, which show that co-sleeping at least in the form of roomsharing especially with an actively breast feeding mother saves lives, is a powerful reason why the simplistic, scientifically inaccurate and misleading statement ‘never sleep with your baby’ needs to be rescinded, wherever and whenever it is published.

According to JJ McKenna1, breastfeeding mothers are more than three times as likely to bed-share.

image: from Atom Egoyan's Sweet HereafterSomething I read, and I can’t for the life of me find it now, when I had just started co-sleeping and breastfeeding was that researchers had found that mothers who co-sleep with their infants were almost unanimously sleeping in the exact same position – with the infant cradled in the nook of the arm, which is protectively around the outside of the baby, and knees drawn up to prevent the baby from shimmying down into the bed. This really fascinated me as I was sleeping like that without anyone ever having told me to.

The Notre Dame study confirms the instinctively safer approach to bed-sharing, saying Our studies have shown that without instruction, the routinely bed-sharing breast feeding mothers almost always placed their infants in the safe supine infant sleep position, probably because it is difficult, if not impossible, to breast feed a prone sleeping infant.

For the babies, bed-sharing meant more regular feeds, and “the nightly durations of breast feeding and to shorten the average intervals between the breast feeding sessions” therein. (Which, as an aside, led to the mothers fertility being regulated.)

Nicky Heskin, in an article about cosleeping and breastfeeding, makes a very valid point too, especially for working mums:

Cosleeping is a great way to fulfill your baby’s physical need for attachment if mommy is not the primary caregiver during the day. Several of my friends who need or choose to work cosleep at night and tell me they don’t feel like they “never see their baby” as some of their colleagues report. Cosleeping also provides the opportunity for increased night nursing (note that cosleeping does not cause increased night nursing: it just means you won’t have to get out of bed for it!). Increased night nursing can help reduce baby’s daytime breastmilk needs and keep milk supply well-stimulated to extend the amount of time working moms are able to be successful at exclusive breastfeeding through pumping.

Cosleeping and breastfeeding as a combination also helps with sleep deprivation. Mothers who learn to breastfeed in the side lying position especially will find themselves feeding without getting up, which makes sleep a lot less disturbed. Later, once babies are able to move a bit more freely, you’ll often find you often don’t even wake up during nursing: I once told my husband that I thought Ameli had slept through, and he actually laughed at me, as he had awoken to the sound of her nursing a few times during the night. At least one of us woke up really refreshed that morning!

early days cosleepingAs always, the ‘rules’ of co-sleeping need to be followed: never co-sleep when you’ve been drinking, never co-sleep if you take drugs, including those that make you drowsy, such as antihistamines, and don’t co-sleep if one of you is a smoker. Also, don’t let the nanny, aunt or grandparent co-sleep with an infant as they do not have the same instincts as a parent and never underestimate those instincts either. One night when Ameli was a few months old I in my sleep reached over and grabbed her as she was about to plunge off the bed. My husband woke me up to tell me what I had just done.

There is a word of warning too though: in the early weeks, until Ameli coulds move, I sat up to breastfeed. One night, side lying, I fell asleep. Instinct kicked in and I woke up and found that my (rather large) breast was over Ameli’s face and she wasn’t able to breathe. Although it hadn’t been going on long enough that she gulped air or was in any distress, I realised the importance of being alert enough – what the Notre Dame study refers to as level 1 and 2 sleep – and avoiding anything that could interfere with your instincts – such as alcohol or extreme exhaustion. (edit: I sat up, because I had been frightened by the experience, since Ameli had not struggled at all [or if she had, it might have been what woke me, but I wasn’t aware of it] , but I must admit that I had ginormous breasts at that stage. It may be safer to side-lie as at least you won’t drop the baby if you fall asleep, but you’ll have to find what works for you.)

Breastfeeding and cosleeping go hand in hand and have done for centuries. In traditional African culture, mothers cosleep with their offspring till four or five years of age. So do they in many Asian cultures.

I’m only an expert on how we have done it, but if you have any questions, or would like to contribute anything, please leave a comment below.

1 McKenna JJ, Mosko S, Richard C. Bed sharing promotes breastfeeding.Pediatrics 1997; 100: 214–219.

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13 thoughts on “Co-Sleeping and Breastfeeding

  1. Awagnerr

    Working as a neonatal nurse-co sleeping with your infant is highly dangerous. The evidence based knowledge behind this topic is tremendous. Not to mention seeing so many babies passing away each year from co-sleeping with your child. Regardless of SIDS, strangulation, or suffocation, the end result is still the same-death. DO NOT co sleep with your baby, because everyone thinks “oh that won’t be me”, because it can. Give post mortem care to an infant, u may then rethink co sleeping! Sleeping with your infant is a selfish/careless act.

    [Reply]

    Luschka Reply:

    I appreciate your opinion, the time you took to comment and your experience, but I do not agree that the evidence is against cosleeping. In fact, the evidence can as easily show the opposite.

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  2. “mothers who co-sleep with their infants were almost unanimously sleeping in the exact same position – with the infant cradled in the nook of the arm, which is protectively around the outside of the baby, and knees drawn up to prevent the baby from shimmying down into the bed”

    this is definitely written in the ‘Womanly Art of Breastfeeding’ by the La Leche League – its been my argument from the get go!

    [Reply]

    Luschka Reply:

    Thank you! I spent ages trying to figure out where I’d read it!

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  3. zoo

    I hope the mums get their sleep as well

    [Reply]

    Luschka Reply:

    We definitely do! More so than our bottle feeding counterparts, studies show.

    Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Jed was in our room in a hammock for about a year and a quarter and even after he moved into the cot in the boy’s room, spent at least half the night in our bed. It’s just easier when you’re breastfeeding and no matter what the supposed pros and cons…the actual truth of the matter is that your baby sleeps better when they’re beside you, and so do you. I’ve experienced it with both my kids.

    Truth be told, if our bed was bigger and hubby was for it (he’s not a fan of co-sleeping) I’d probably still have him at night as I’m sure we’d all be sleeping easier. I shared my bed with siblings, cousins, parents through much of my childhood and think nothing of the ‘family bed’. As you said, it’s the African way.
    Babes about Town’s last blog post ..Start your week with a POW! Imagine

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  5. mothers who co-sleep with their infants were almost unanimously sleeping in the exact same position – with the infant cradled in the nook of the arm, which is protectively around the outside of the baby, and knees drawn up to prevent the baby from shimmying down into the bed

    I slept like that, too. And if she moved closer to Chris, I’d automatically pull her into me again. It used to bug him, because he thought I was trying to keep her from waking him up and he was fine, but it was just instinctual – still do it if she ends up in our bed (Eleanor, I mean, not Rosemary – she wriggles about FAR too much!)
    Tasha Goddard’s last blog post ..A blog you need to follow

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  6. Healthy babies fight for air, and baby struggles rouse nursing mamas unless they are intoxicated, so I wonder why you recommend sitting up in bed for the first two weeks when falling asleep sitting up with baby is more dangerous (and more likely)? So many times my breasts have restricted their breathing as they sleep – in a sling, in my arms and at night – and they grab and push with all their might!

    Even a newborn baby can move, can crawl themselves to the breast, and they instinctively use their fists to push things away from their face when they can’t breathe, I’ve seen it over and over again. :)

    Your example of waking before Kyra even struggled is a perfect illustration of how well the mama sense works.

    My second born, at a few weeks old, stopped breathing briefly. I was right beside her and was aware of her stillness, and after doing that mama thing where you watch their chest, I snatched her up and instinctively hugged her to me, she gasped, and was fine – nothing like that ever happened again. I can tell you, after that, you realise just how attuned your senses are and how dangerous it is to keep mama and baby apart at night time!
    Sarah’s last blog post ..Finding our feet

    [Reply]

    Luschka Reply:

    @Sarah, That’s an interesting point Sarah. Honestly, the only reason I did it was because I had exceptionally large breasts and I after that event I was a bit scared. I agree the instinct is amazing, but there’s the …what if…

    I think I’ll change the wording in the post though, as you’re right. It’s not really a recommendation, as such, but was my feeling on it. I was frightened by the fact that my two week old didn’t DO anything. Or perhaps she did and that’s what woke me up!

    I absolutely agree with your final paragraph. There is absolutely nothing natural about keeping a baby seperate. I wrote a post once about my love for co-sleeping and the main reason I did it was because when she was in her cot or with my hubby, I couldn’t sleep well cause I couldn’t ‘hear’ her breathing. When she was next to me I was able to rouse without waking, hear her breathing and go back to sleep. Awesome. What an amazing thing.

    Thanks for the comment!

    [Reply]

    Sarah Reply:

    @Luschka, aw there is just nothing like a fuzzy baby bed head snuggled in kissing distance! Night time is my special time with just the smallest; once the second one came along I realised just how much gazing gets done in the dim cozy bed. :)
    Sarah’s last blog post ..Finding our feet

    [Reply]

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