Nighttime Parenting Without Fear and Tears

Tanguy and Mama sleeping

co-sleeping at 5 month

“Don’t sleep with your baby or put the baby down to sleep in an adult bed. The only safe place for babies is in a crib that meets current safety standards and has a firm, tight-fitting mattress.”[1]

Since the later part of the last century, shifting cultural expectations, social ideology and biased research have fostered the idea of solitary sleeping for infants, as illustrated by the above quote from Ann Brown, Commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the US. Her warning was issued after a study found that an average of 64 babies die each year from suffocation and strangulation as a result of sleeping in adult beds.

The study reveals that the main problems mainly lie in the use of waterbeds or bed frames, and largely ignores the relatively simple preventive measures parents can take to avoid such risk and the benefits infants can get from safe bed-sharing.

Lower risk of SIDs for bed-sharing infants

The fact is, the transition from womb to world leaves infants with a sudden deprivation of comforting maternal contact as they sleep at night. A bed-sharing environment with non-alcoholic and drug-free parents on proper beds without dangerous objects[2] is totally safe and results in tremendous benefits for both mother and infant. When a mother sleeps with her infant, her body curls up instinctively in a fetal position to protect and nourish her child with constant skin-to-skin contact and spontaneous breastfeeding. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the mother and infant move in regular tandem position as they sleep, which enables the mother to regulate the infant’s body temperature and respond sensitively to the infant’s sensory cues and feeding signals. In a longitudinal research study performed by the University of Otago in New Zealand, forty routine bed-sharing infants and forty routine cot-sleeping infants were observed in their home setting to identify the differences in the thermal characteristics of the two sleep situations and their potential hazards. The study[3] found that bed-sharing infants have a lower risk of SID[4] than cot-sleeping infants due to a warmer sleeping environment provided by the co-sleeping adult. According to epidemiologic data, infants who co-sleep with adult-caregivers are four times less likely to die from SID than solitary sleeping infants.

Solitary sleeping means more cries

dad: the most comfortable pillow

dad: the most comfortable pillow

However, despite the advantages of safe co-sleeping, many parents tend to succumb to societal pressure of forcing early independence by leaving infants alone in a separate room. The idea of a solitary sleeping infant is further reinforced by “sleep experts” who claim healthy sleep habits can only be achieved when a baby sleeps alone in a crib, and by targeted marketing messages promoting cribs and other baby furniture. Unfortunately, a solitary sleeping infant has become the “norm”, even though it results in an insecure infant who cries a lot more than an infant who co-sleeps with the parent. As Dr James McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioural Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dames explains, “human infants appear pre-sensitized as if biologically ‘expecting’ to receive sensory signals linking them to a co-sleeping partner, to signals such as breathing sounds, chest movements, smell of mother’s breast milk and touches. All of these factors have been shown to change human infant physiology, including heart rate and breathing patterns in clinically advantageous ways, and to reduce excessive nighttime human infant crying. “[5]

Furthermore, and contrary to the popular belief that a solitary sleeping infant results in better quality of sleep for parents, Dr James McKenna found in his research that mothers who routinely sleep with their infants actually get at least as much sleep as mothers without them. Even though bed-sharing infants may wake up more often to breastfeed, they actually stay awake for a much shorter period of time and rarely cry compared to solitary sleeping infants.

Embracing natural biological behaviour

Since the primitive age, mother-infant bed sharing has always been the norm in the early months of an infant’s life to maximize his survival chance and well-being. But as societies develop, infant-parent co-sleeping becomes less common, at the unfortunate detriment of the infant and parents well-being. In my case, I co-slept with my son for the first six months of his life. Those nights were far from easy. There were times when I woke up in a drowsy mode while watching him latched himself to my nipple. I remember catching a glimpse of his sleepy face suckling my breast. Those days are now long gone but ironically, those were also the days that I am the most nostalgic of. Even today, my two-year old toddler occasionally wakes up at night. My answer is invariably to bring him into the bed and co-sleep with him. No doubt, nighttime parenting may be challenging and even stressful at times. But understanding the irregular and sporadic sleep patterns of babies and embracing their natural biological behavior will help parents to manage night-time parenting better without fear and tears.

[1] Ann Brown, Commissioner in the article of CPSC warns against placing babies in adult beds; study finds 64 deaths each year from suffocation and strangulation.

[2] Huge fluffy pillows and dangerous sharp toys

[3] Bed-sharing and the infant’s thermal environment in the home setting

[4] Sudden Infant Death

[5] Mother-infant co-sleeping: toward a new Scientific beginning. James J.McKenna and Sarah Mosko – 2001

Latest Comments
  1. Rachael
  2. Rachael Sheridan