Co-sleeping, or bed-sharing, with your child is culturally informed. In many places around the world, it is commonplace. In North America, it is generally discouraged. The discomfort with it stems from – you guessed it – fear. You may have noticed that many popular practices are tied to fear, and it’s not entirely unwarranted. Nothing sparks more fear than the possibility of a baby getting hurt. It’s important to educate ourselves and to also check in with ourselves, noting when fear is leading us in our choices. Are we afraid of what could happen? Are we afraid of what others will think if we go against culturally popular belief? How can we step out of that fear and lead with love, instead?
Co-sleeping has many benefits. For one, both the baby and the mother get more sleep, which isn’t surprising when you think about it. Imagine, for a moment, you are a baby in utero. You are constantly nourished, constantly warm and constantly secure with the sounds and sensations of your mother’s breath and heartbeat. Then you are born, physically separated from your life source for the first time, and suddenly you are expected to spend about 12 hours a day secluded in a separate bed or room. It’s no wonder a baby might seek signs of its mother – food, warmth and comfort – when put in a strange, still and quiet environment. If you are a breastfeeding mother, sleeping next to your child means you can stay in bed for nighttime feedings. I recommend you wear your most breast-accessible sleepwear and have a dim light close to your bed for navigation purposes until you master the blind breast latch, but it is very possible to breastfeed while lying down in bed at night as needed.
Co-sleeping is safe. In relative terms, there are more deaths attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome than to co-sleeping related accidents. Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable, then don’t do it. You know yourself and your partner best. A bassinet close by can be a great option as well. If co-sleeping is for you, it’s always a good idea to exercise safety precautions. It is recommended that the baby sleep beside the mother or primary caregiver, rather than in between two partners. Concerns that the baby may roll out of bed don’t really need to be addressed until the baby actually reaches the stage where they are able to roll over. Also, bear in mind that the baby will not only be drawn to you by your smell, warmth and breathing, but your weight on the bed will also lend a slight slope that will make it the preferred direction of movement. You can tuck in a top sheet for more security, push your bed against a wall, put your mattress on floor level or install bed rails, too. If you are concerned that you may roll onto the baby, don’t underestimate the power of the mom brain, which continues to be aware of your baby’s needs and movements day and night, awake and unconscious. You could, if you want to, put a baby nest with raised edges on your bed for an extra barrier. It’s a good idea to keep pillows, long hair and bulky blankets away from the baby’s face to minimize the risk suffocating or choking. A sleep sack is like a miniature personal sleeping bag for the baby and can keep them warm without needing to cover them with your blanket. Use caution with swaddling, as it restricts movement in the event they roll facedown.
With each of my kids, I decided to move them to a crib in a separate room at six months of age. For some, that sounds drastically early, and for some that sounds dreadfully late. I hope I sound like a broken record when I say, do what works for you. My reason was that I was not as comfortable sleeping as I wanted to be – I like to switch sides during the night, but I was always cemented in place with my bed buddy tucked in beside me. I continued to breastfeed as needed through the night, so that meant I had to get up out of bed several times a night, and that was a tradeoff that I was comfortable with at that time. I would not suggest night weaning at the same time as a bed swap. To attempt to make the transition smoother, we did a couple of things. We made sure to spend a lot of time during the day in their new room leading up to the change. I know a lot of people will say to make the bedroom a sleep-only zone, but I found my second adjusted better because she was accustomed to playing in that room prior to the move. We also had a nightlight in our room that we moved to the new room, providing something familiar within the new sleep space. Other than that, we made sure to dress them warmer than normal for bed, because the crib is always cooler than bedsharing.
I tell people to give any transition three days. Once you make a change, stick with it, as not to confuse the child. Our kids adjusted pretty well, but certainly the first couple nights were startling for them. We responded to the cries, and would provide comfort, but made sure not to bring them back into bed with us – that was the non-negotiable. We would allow short periods of time of crying, especially if we sensed they were very drowsy, but we do not subscribe to the “crying it out” protocol. I definitely have concerns about the psychological impacts of young babies being ignored and abandoned when indicating distress. They have no way of understanding or reasoning why they’ve been left alone by their otherwise responsive caregiver(s). They have no capacity to manipulate you at this stage. They will eventually stop crying, but I view this as training them to stop asking for help, rather than training them to sleep or self-soothe. I would urge every parent to be realistic in your expectations about when and how your baby should sleep, because the more I listen to parents, the more I realize that most babies need some kind of care and attention during the night, while popular belief maintains that they should be able to sleep through the night at a young age. This rouses feelings of failure and isolation, and pushes parents to go against the instinct to comfort and force unnatural habits on their little ones.
Co-sleeping with your baby does not mean you will be sharing a bed when your child is 10 years old – or five or even two years old, necessarily – despite what the Boomers may say. One of the fear-based tendencies is to want to rush or bypass certain phases to avoid going through a potentially difficult transition later on. Remember that life with kids is full of transitions. Some will be challenging temporarily, and other times your child will surprise you with how well they adjust to a new change. There’s no need to start getting them used to being on their own when they are just days old simply to avoid a projected dependency issue down the road. There’s no need to start sleep training them at an arbitrary time. Learn to recognize their readiness for next steps and stages. One of the greatest skills you can hone as a parent is to flow with the phases. Nothing in life is permanent. I often get a puzzled look from people when I say, “Even my tattoos are not permanent”. They will only last as long as my body is intact and, though we don’t often think about it, our very selves are temporary. Impermanence applies to everything. When we accept this reality, we can better cherish the nights sleeping next to our little ones and support them through the transitions to come.