There is nothing quite as controversial as how or where you choose to let your baby sleep during the first few years of their lives.
"I wanted my baby girl in our room but my husband didn’t want her in our bed—we found a way to compromise,” first-time mum Kate Wilson tells me. “We ended up buying a bassinet that we could attach to our bed. This meant that she was close enough to us to make breastfeeding easy but at the same time she was still sleeping in a separate space. This works really well for us.”
“My kids sleep in a separate room but will run to our room for cuddles when they wake up, which is usually around four or five in the morning,” says mum-of-two Julia Cho. “I love the closeness of having them with us for those early morning snuggles but hubby and I definitely appreciate them having their own space too! Our younger child sometimes sleeps with us when she has had a bad dream but we don’t have any issues with that.”
“We have co-slept with all three of our kids but followed precautions as much as possible,” said a mum-of-three who prefers to remain anonymous. “It’s a cultural thing for us to co-sleep and it has worked for us.”
For those lucky enough not to have waded into the great baby sleep debate, here are some definitions: Co-sleeping is the practice of mums sleeping in close proximity to their babies, particularly in the same bed. Cot-sleeping is when babies sleep in their own designated sleeping area, separate from their parents.
Last year, David Brinkley from Oklahoma, USA, overheard his wife Alora’s friend questioning Alora’s decision to co-sleep with their children.
“Doesn’t your husband hate that? My husband would never let me do that,” the friend remarked.
Wanting to set the record straight regarding his thoughts on their family’s sleeping situation, David posted a photo on Facebook of his wife snuggling in bed with their two sons.
“I just decided to come out as a man and set a few things straight,” he commented. “I do NOT hate any part of what makes my wife the mother that she is. I would NEVER degrade or disregard anything that she feels like doing for my children. Do I have to squeeze into a small corner of the bed sometimes? Yeah. But . . . how beautiful does she look holding my children . . . making them feel loved and safe?”
His post went on to explain that there is only a small window of time in which his kids will want to sleep with their parents. When that window closes, he and his wife will have the bed to themselves for the rest of their lives.
“I am proud of the decisions my wife makes as a mum and I support every single one of them. I would never want to rob her of this time she has or these seasons that are in reality too short to enjoy,” said David. “Please respect your wives as mothers.”
His post went viral, especially after being shared on the Love What Matters Facebook page. However, a flood of criticism immediately erupted over his defence of co-sleeping.
“This is dangerous for the baby,” warned one commenter, quoted in The Sun.
“Babies die every day because of this,” wrote another.
David eventually chose to delete his original post.
The benefits of co-sleeping with your baby
So is co-sleeping with your children really reckless parenting? The popular consensus in most Western countries appears to say so. No wonder a paediatrician from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, generated headlines all over the world when he advised that babies should sleep on their mother’s chest for the first few weeks of life and share their mother’s bed until they were at least three years old.
According to England’s The Telegraph, Dr Nils Bergman argues that babies who co-sleep are able to sleep better and establish a stronger emotional bond with their parents. He also believes that co-sleeping is more optimal for brain development, which would lead to fewer behavioural issues later in life.
His advice goes against research that shows co-sleeping is dangerous for babies and contradicts counsel every single mother in Australia and New Zealand are given right from when they get pregnant: put your baby to sleep in a safe cot, on a safe mattress, as it’s the best prevention for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). (In Australia, some nine babies a day sadly lose their lives to the unexplained and still hardly understood SIDS.)
The dangers of sharing a bed with your baby
Just last year, Dr Sam Hanke from Kentucky, USA, revealed to website Fatherly that he had lost his baby son Charlie after he fell asleep with the baby on his chest. Sam was hoping to give his wife Maura a rest.
“I just sat down on the couch to watch some TV and he was kind of sitting on my chest. We were just hanging out and I nodded off,” Dr Sam said to Fatherly. “A couple of hours later, I woke up and Charlie was gone.”
A year after the loss of their son, Dr Sam and his wife started an organisation called Charlie’s Kids as a way to both remember their son and to raise awareness of safe-sleep choices: putting a baby to sleep on their back, on a firm, safe sleep surface, in a cot or portacot, without blankets or pillows.
In a 2013 news release, Professor Bob Carpenter, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the lives of 120 babies per year in the UK could be saved if parents stopped sharing beds with their little ones.
Taking your baby into your bed is like the fine print at the bottom of the breastfeeding contract.
“Eighty per cent of the deaths that occur while bed-sharing would probably not have occurred had the baby been placed on its back in a cot by the parents’ bed,” said Professor Bob. “Annually there are around 300 cot death cases in babies under a year old in the UK—this advice could save the lives of up to 40 per cent of those.”
Then there’s also a study published in Pediatrics journal, which suggests sleeping in a separate room actually helps your baby develop better sleeping habits.
The study involved 300 families and examined the questionnaire data filled out by the babies’ mothers in regards to their sleep duration, location, night waking, night feedings, bedtime routines and sleep behaviours at four, nine, 12 and 30 months old.
According to the study, children who slept independently would sleep approximately 40 minutes longer than their co-sleeping counterparts. At nine months old, the independent sleepers slept for an average of 10.5 hours at night, compared to 9.75 hours per night for room sharers. At 30 months old, independent sleepers would sleep more than 45 minutes longer at night than those who were room-sharing from nine months old.
Should you cot or co-sleep?
Yet, almost every breastfeeding mama can attest co-sleeping does make life a little bit easier.
“Being close makes it possible for a mum to notice early hunger signs and makes it easy to feed when the baby wakes as there’s no need to get out of bed,” says Sydney-based sleep coach, Cheryl Fingleson. “If parents follow strict co-sleeping guidelines, it is safe.”
“I am in favour of co-sleeping and bed sharing if this is done safely,” agrees Pinky McKay, an internationally certified lactation consultant, best-selling author and mum of five.
“Studies of breastfeeding families show taking your baby into your bed is like the fine print at the bottom of the breastfeeding contract. It happens to 50 to 80 per cent of families, so I feel we have a responsibility to share how to manage this safely.”
On her website, Pinky describes video footage from baby sleep labs at Durham University (UK) and the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia. In the footage, breastfeeding and bed-sharing mothers are shown to intuitively create protective spaces around their babies by lying on their sides and holding their babies in the crook of the arm, or with the mother’s lower arm bent upwards and knees bent. This prevents the mother from rolling towards her baby and means her partner cannot roll into that protected space. Breastfed babies instinctively snuggle towards their mothers’ breasts, away from the potential suffocation hazard of pillows.
Pinky notes that even SIDS researcher Professor James McKenna claims sharing sleep with your baby can be potentially life-saving. She quotes Professor McKenna as saying, “Infants and babies give off cues and signals that caregivers need to react and respond to. By sleeping next to baby, the mother is able to promote baby’s breathing stability. There is no scientific validation that says co-sleeping is bad. Accidents, of course, happen, and there are risk factors, as with everything.”
Whether you choose to co-sleep or cot-sleep, you should always follow the appropriate guidelines. “If, like up to 80 per cent of Australian parents with babies under six months, you are sharing sleep with your baby either occasionally or more often, check out Professor McKenna’s Safe Co-Sleeping Guidelines and the Red Nose guidelines for safe co-sleeping,” Pinky recommends.
At the end of the day, make the decision that’s right for you and your family, follow the recommended guidelines and ignore the guilt that every mother develops. You are doing a great job.