Co-Sleeping and Breastfeeding

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reason why the simplistic, scientifically inaccurate and misleading statement ‘never sleep with your baby’ needs to be rescinded, wherever and whenever it is published.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.

If Pretending Made It So: We Need Education Not Denial

Information. It is so vital to our survival. Misinformation, on the other hand is a killer. Can you imagine if you were told that a red traffic light meant ‘go’? What chaos would reign in your life, if you lived very long at all?

I have been sorely disturbed in recent months by the information and lack thereof surrounding the sleeping, feeding and care of our babies if it doesn’t fall strictly in line with the latest guidelines, based on the latest research.
Read more: If Pretending Made It So: We Need Education Not Denial