Lessons in co-sleeping
Once upon a time there was a very tired new mother. She didn’t know much about newborns, but if she knew one thing it was that it was VERY important not to let them sleep in your bed in case something terrible happened. Her tiny daughter had other ideas and screamed as if she was being tortured every time she was put down. So for six weeks the new mother stayed awake for most of the night, cradling her baby in her arms, desperate not to fall asleep and occasionally catching herself slumped over her baby. Sometimes her husband took the little girl in to the other room and dozed with her on the sofa while the exhausted new mother crashed out. Eventually the baby learned to sleep in her own cot and, so traumatic had those first weeks of fighting sleep been, that the new mother rushed her straight in to the nursery to sleep on her own at only nine weeks old. You see she knew that you weren’t really supposed to put little babies to sleep in their own rooms but hey, she herself had slept alone with no bad outcomes and at least she had managed to avoid the big bad wolf of parenting: bed-sharing.
I was that new mother. Four and a half years ago it was me that was so desperate to get my tiny little girl away from me at night. In trying to avoid something I thought could endanger my baby and set up ‘bad’ sleeping habits I managed to put her in some far more scary situations: sofa sleeping, sleeping in my arms surrounded by pillows, sleeping on her own in a room at the other end of the flat from us. I can’t quite believe I did all that to her. Thankfully as I type this she’s safely asleep in her room. Even though I flouted the most basic universally accepted rules to prevent SIDS she is thriving. I know I am very lucky and I know that tragically others aren’t.
Yet I’m willing to bet that if I told most people who’ve read the papers today my daughter’s story and then told them that I practiced planned co-sleeping with my second baby from birth they’d feel that it was my new baby son who had the most dangerous sleeping experience. Because of course today’s coverage of the NICE draft guidelines relating to co-sleeping has been another opportunity to reinforce the view that all forms of co-sleeping are bad. REALLY REALLY REALLY BAD EVIL DANGEROUS STUPID. That a mother’s body is lethal weapon, poised to inflict harm on her sleeping newborn as soon as she closes her eyes. That there is no difference between carefully planning your co-sleeping and conking out on the sofa after half a bottle of wine with your newborn tucked in the crook of your arm.
I beg to disagree.
These are three true things I know about co-sleeping:
- The most common form of co-sleeping has been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of SIDS. Room-sharing (a form of co-sleeping) is positively and uncontroversially advocated by anyone who knows anything about new babies. And guess what, it’s not the room itself that confers the protection on the baby. There’s no magic in the carpet or protective spells in the very plasterboard. The protection is the proximity to the parents. Sleeping near its mother helps the baby fall in to a light, safe sleeping pattern, helps regulate breathing and much, much more.
- Some forms of co-sleeping are uncontroversially dangerous, they really, really are. Unplanned co-sleeping, sleeping on a sofa, smoking and co-sleeping. These situations put a baby at risk. Just don’t do it kids.
- Baby’s have a biological urge to stay as close as possible to their mothers. They instinctively want to co-sleep. Dr James McKenna discusses the pull mothers and baby’s have towards each other at night here.
The trouble is that because of number three on my list, even those of us determined not to co-sleep find ourselves asleep with our infants at some time or another. In my case the belief that bed-sharing was REALLY BAD led to what I now realise were potentially harmful sleeping practices.
This time around I know a bit better. I’ve read a lot more books and been round the block via my clients’ and friends’ experiences. Now I’m somewhat of a changed woman. For me and my family I believe planned co-sleeping is safe. There isn’t enough robust evidence to really scientifically prove this beyond a doubt, but neither is there enough robust evidence to prove the theory that all bed-sharing is unsafe as per today’s draft guidance. You can’t go around testing this stuff out on newborns for obvious ethical reasons.
So why is my second baby upstairs right now snoring on a king size mattress instead of a cot, other than the fact that I love to kiss his fluffy little head as I fall asleep?
Well, first I referred to good old Dr Sears for his safe co-sleeping guidelines and realised that there are common sense things I could do to make it safe. Then I looked at the evidence against co-sleeping and found that much of it was flawed, as per Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s excellent analysis of the Carpenter study which heavily influenced the NICE draft. I then looked at studies and research showing positive benefits of bed-sharing; from increasing breastfeeding duration (itself a strong protection against SIDS) to reducing infant stress levels, regulating breathing and developmental benefits. I looked at my life and realised that working and looking after two children under five was going to require as much sleep as possible and that co-sleeping would best enable this as per this UNICEF report. I saw that countries like Japan with the highest bed-sharing rates also had some of the lowest SIDS rates. Finally I looked at my own experience with my daughter and realised that it was my absolute one-track determination to avoid sharing a bed with her, despite her very clear signals that that is what she wanted and needed, that placed her in harms way.
All that considered I bought a king sized cellular blanket, a co-sleeping cot (used only in the end as a bedside table) and some breastfeeding pyjamas and got on with it. So while I don’t think everyone should bed down with their bubbas (in fact its really only those who can check off all of Dr Sears guidelines who will want to consider it in ernest) I also don’t think broad-brush recommendations, based on evidence described as ‘lower quality’ by NICE itself, do mothers and babies any favours.
Unless someone figures out how to sever the invisible cord that remains uncut between a woman and her infant at birth there will be co-sleeping. I want to kiss his fluffy little head at night and he wants to hold my hand and so it will be until the world stops turning. So let’s give new families the information they need to decide what is safe and unsafe for their specific circumstances rather than demonise co-sleeping and drive women like me to make bad decisions in the dark fog of the sleepless night.