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Sweet Slumber

Co-Sleeping in the Family Bed

Every young mammal on Earth sleeps in close contact with its mother and other family members. They’ve been co-sleeping for security, warmth, comfort and protection for millions of years of evolution.

Although it is generally frowned upon in the United States, many human cultures, including most in East Asia, the Pacific islands, South America, Africa and much of southern Europe, have a rich tradition of co-sleeping. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson relates that until very recently, most domiciles centered around a central room, or hall, where everyone slept together. Even today, adults and children almost always sleep together in the same beds in non-industrialized, traditional societies worldwide.

The modern practice of placing babies in separate rooms at night, often to cry themselves to sleep, appears to be a historical aberration. Co-sleeping, conversely, is the age-old norm because it offers so many benefits to both parents and children.

Co-sleeping makes breastfeeding easier.

Studies published by the Acta Paediatrica, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics confirm a consistent link between co-sleeping and breastfeeding in countries as disparate as Brazil, Britain, Malaysia and Sweden. Breast milk provides immunological benefits, transfers symbiotic gut bacteria and promotes bonding between mother and child. It’s especially nutritious if the mother’s diet is healthy, and breast milk is the only food experts agree the human body is unquestionably designed to consume.

Co-sleeping improves sleep.

A mother that can breastfeed without leaving the bed will get more sleep. Also, more research from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows a lower incidence of sudden infant death syndrome when breastfeeding is practiced.

In the clinical experience of James McKenna, Ph.D., a University of Notre Dame professor and leading anthropologist in the field, “Breastfeeding mothers typically keep their babies away from pillows, positioning their infants on their backs, while placing them below the parents’ shoulders and raising their arms above them.” Plus, the adults “lay on their sides in ways that can prevent accidental overlays.”

Co-sleeping builds parent-child bonds.

Research published by the Sleep Research Society shows that mothers who co-sleep with their babies are more attuned to their sleep/wake habits and can respond quicker to their needs. According to the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, skin-to-skin touch increases the secretion of oxytocin, a bond-building hormone.

Co-sleeping fosters maturation.

Studies in the Infant and Child Development journal show that kids that share a bed or sleep in the same room with their parents grow up to be more self-reliant and socially independent, better behaved, less anxious about intimacy as adults and more likely to be happy.

Parents that are nervous about sharing beds can try room sharing, where the baby sleeps in an adjoining crib or cot; family members will experience many of the same benefits.

Safe Co-Sleeping Habits

  • Don’t drink alcohol or take drugs that affect awareness and judgment, especially before bed.
  • Don’t smoke tobacco. The tars and toxins cling to an adult’s body, hair and clothes, exposing the baby to dangerous chemicals that increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Don’t co-sleep if the parent is sleep-deprived, a heavy sleeper, has sleep apnea or is obese.
  • Don’t allow pets or other children to sleep next to babies.
  • Don’t co-sleep on a sofa, loveseat or reclining chair. The cushions create crevices for infant heads to slip into and the elevation creates a fall risk.
  • Don’t use overly soft mattresses that babies can sink into. Think firm.
  • Don’t use thick bedding, which can cause rapid overheating or lead to smothering.
  • Don’t co-sleep unless everyone is on board. If a spouse isn’t agreeable, try a room share instead.
  • Provide a big enough bed to afford ample space for all co-sleepers.
  • Keep the mattress low or place it on the floor.
  • Eliminate all crevices that a baby might be able to fall into; push the mattress  snug against one or more walls.
  • Use a firm mattress, a tight-fitting sheet and light bedding.
  • Place the baby on its back to sleep.
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