Co-sleeping with Infants
Welcome to the very first episode of my podcast for parents who want to be in the know about major parenting concerns and issues. Co-sleeping with infants is the topic under discussion today.
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Emily M Morgan with you and today on Parents in the Know, we’re investigating cosleeping with infants. Cosleeping is when you and/or your partner, share a bed with your child. Cosleeping with babies gets the most attention due to the stories of infant deaths and we’ll look at this in more detail today. However it is also possible and (as some parents will agree) highly likely that you could find yourself cosleeping with your older children, well into their primary years. We’ll cover that scenario in another episode of this podcast.
Today we’re going to look at cosleeping with infants. Cosleeping means different things to different people. It may mean sleeping anywhere, a couch, a bed, a chair, with your baby in your arms. It may mean sleeping in bed with your partner and your baby all sharing the same space. Or it may mean sleeping with your baby in its own bassinet within arm’s reach of you in your bed.
There are plenty of websites, blogs and advice arenas which tell you about the benefits of cosleeping (increased sleep for you, faster access to breastfeeding for the baby, increased bonding, to name three) and these resources also provide advice on how to do it safely. But it seems that the benefits are often emphasized over the risks. Or perhaps people are so used to hearing about how to make sure your baby is safe in bed (thanks to years of campaigning about SIDS) that we’ve become a bit blasé, the way we feel about those safety announcements on planes. “Yeah, yeah, we know,” we say, not really listening. But would we know how to respond in an airplane emergency? And do we really know what is safe for our babies and what isn’t?
Official guidelines world-wide advocate that if you intend to sleep with your baby in the same bed, it is essential that the baby have his or her own sleeping space. This should be a bassinet or attachable cot which attaches to the side of your bed, so that you can reach over and touch your baby, but he or she will not be at risk of entering your space and being squashed or suffocated.
You are also advised the following: An infant should never ever be placed between two adults, nor should you ever cosleep if you are on medication or are intoxicated – basically if you are a heavy sleeper – or if you are very obese and may not be able to easily feel where the infant is, or control your movements and positioning in bed, and if you have very long hair you should tie it well out of the way so that it cannot find its way around the infant’s neck – apparently, this has really happened. Neither should you allow a baby to sleep in the same bed as other children, as they cannot be responsible for the baby’s safety.
You will most likely have heard some of this before. Safe infant sleeping spaces have firm mattresses with no gaps which they could roll into, no pillows, toys or cloths that might go over their faces, with light, comfortable blankets tucked firmly away from their heads, and away from smoke. Waterbeds, couches, bean bag mattresses or fluffy material such as sheepskins should never be used as beds for your baby.
Now you have heard about what we’re supposed to do, let’s look at the issue which these guidelines don’t address: the power of parental instinct. Many parents feel strongly that cosleeping is an incredible bonding experience for parent and baby. Not only that, it is convenient for soothing and breastfeeding in the early months and beyond. And when a baby is sick, teething or unsettled, the proximity to their parent is of great comfort, not only to the baby, but also to the parent. Anyone who has coslept with a sick infant will tell you: they sleep much sounder in the arms or within arms’ reach of their parent.
How do I know this? Because I am a parent who has coslept with both my children at various times when they were sick. My daughter, who is now three, used to get very bad chest colds as a baby and would often struggle to breathe through the night. I would lie there, awake, listening desperately for every breath, and tensing with every attempt of hers to clear her blocked nose.
We had several trips to the hospital for monitoring but I became experienced enough to know when she would work through it on her own and when she was really struggling. However, on those difficult but not emergency-room-worthy nights, when she constantly woke herself up trying to catch a breath, I would often take her into my own bed.
I would lie half upright in bed, and she would sleep on my chest, breaking all the rules of safe sleeping. Supported in a more upright position, she generally managed to drop into a sound sleep at least for a few hours at a time. I would doze through the night and when I could hear her breathing normalizing I would lay her down beside me in the middle of the bed (as I was terrified of the thought that she’d roll out) and she would sleep with my arm as her pillow.
I always had her well above me, away from my quilts and blankets, so that she wouldn’t overheat or end up with something over her face. That much I knew to do. And I also knew in an academic way that letting her sleep with me was probably not the safest thing to do.
But my knowledge and my instinct were at war, and in this case, instinct won. I felt that if she were close to me I would know at once if she were to stop breathing. I would be right there, able to help. I was convinced that I would remain alert enough to prevent myself from rolling on top of her or otherwise making things more dangerous for her. I felt deep down that I was doing the right thing.
My story is not intended as advice. I believe that I was wrong to act as I did and I have taken care to cosleep more safely with my son. But interestingly, while researching this podcast I realized that there was something else about cosleeping that I had not considered.
I thought that a specialist might tell me I was increasing the chances of smothering my child in her sleep. Perhaps they were right, but I have never been a deep sleeper and whenever she was in bed with me I was always on hyper-alert. I don’t think she was at increased risk of smothering, but that’s my personal opinion.
However, SIDS and suffocation are two different things. SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is the terrible condition in which a sleeping infant simply stops breathing. There is still no exact understanding about why it happens, although over time plenty of evidence has been found which allows us to reduce the risk, such as never sleeping a baby on its stomach, never smoking around them or whilst pregnant, and keeping heavy covers off them whilst in bed.
Despite the safest behaviour in the world, SIDS deaths still occur. And doctors who are consulted on cosleeping ask you to consider this question:
If you are cosleeping with your infant, whether safely or not, and your infant passes away from SIDS – not from suffocation, but from SIDS– what would you think? Would you feel that you or your partner had accidentally suffocated your child? Would you believe that bed-sharing had contributed to the death? Is it worth the pain, doubt, anger and guilt that might follow?
I had never considered this question. To be honest I always assumed that SIDS wouldn’t happen if I were vigilant enough and for me, cosleeping was about vigilance – being right there should anything happen. But that was a flawed belief. My daughter could be breathing calmly, fast asleep. I could drift off myself. And while I was sleeping, my daughter could simply have stopped breathing and died, right there in my arms and I would never have known.
As you can see, cosleeping is an issue in which factual knowledge and instinct tend to fight it out for supremacy. Knowing that you can cosleep safely but it may still not save your child from SIDS is very hard to get your head around. Knowing that you could give up cosleeping for your own peace of mind, despite your inclination, and still lose your child to SIDS is just as hard.
Of course, it’s very unlikely that SIDS will affect your family. If you follow the recommendations of professionals you are almost certainly safe. But stories of infants who died while they were cosleeping are reported on the news quite frequently. The deaths may have happened because of SIDS or because of unsafe cosleeping – but they are not one and the same thing. In fact, in Japan, bedsharing rates are among the highest in the world. It is the cultural norm for babies to share beds with their mothers (and fathers if they’re together). And Japan’s rate of SIDS in the lowest in the world. In other words – they pretty much all share beds with their infants, and they have hardly any SIDS cases. Clearly, linking the two willy nilly is hardly helpful.
Additional links can be found at my website, including a link to an excellent article at Essential Baby about the tragic death of a three month old due to SIDS in which the parents coslept with the baby following every safe guideline. Despite their tragedy they are confident that they kept their daughter as safe as they could and that their actions did not endanger their child. Cosleeping likely did not contribute to SIDS in this case.
And on the other hand, my own mother lost a son to SIDS in the early eighties, when current SIDS risk-reduction guidelines had not come into place. She also did everything in her power to keep him safe, swaddling him, putting him in his own safe sleeping space and sleeping him on his stomach as was recommended at the time. Despite her care, she, too, lost her son. Separate sleeping did not save her child from SIDS in this case.
Tragedies like these never lose their hold, but knowing that you did everything you could to prevent it may give some comfort. It is up to us to do everything in our power not to become a tragic story in the news, so follow professional guidelines at all times and keep informed about new discoveries leading to safer recommendations.
To recap: SIDS and cosleeping occasionally go together. SIDS and separate sleeping also occasionally go together. Ultimately, only you can choose what is best for your family. If you feel strongly that cosleeping will benefit your baby and yourself, then your best idea is to do it as safely as possible and to talk it through with your partner if you have one, so that you both take equal responsibility for your baby’s safety while you cosleep.
In the next episode of Parents in the Know, we’ll explore a policy change which is having a significant positive effect on the health of children in the UK and soon, I hope, across the world. Umbilical cords and when to clamp them – next time on Parents in the Know.
Thanks for listening.
Resources and Links