One Moms View On Breastfeeding And Co-Sleeping

Public health authorities seem intent on making motherhood impossible. They rightly tell mothers how important breastfeeding is and then wrongly suggest that co-sleeping is unsafe. Some of them, like the Australians, also tell parents that it is detrimental to use techniques like controlled crying to get their baby to sleep (and I would agree). So essentially they are saying that the mother (the one with the breasts) needs to get out of bed multiple times every night to breastfeed her baby and then put her baby back to bed in a crib.

The problem? That is exhausting! In fact Macall Gordon conducted a survey of parents’ experiences with sleep interventions and popular advice and found that parents that were not co-sleeping and did not use cry it out techniques were the most stressed and anxious about their infant’s sleep.

So what is the solution? Mothers that co-sleep with their breastfed babies are usually well rested and don’t worry about sleep nearly as much as those that are getting out of bed several times per night to tend to their kids. My son was a frequent night walker and I although I certainly noticed his night wakings, I wasn’t nearly as exhausted when co-sleeping as I was when we initially tried putting him in his crib. I was an experienced co-sleeper by the time my daughter came along and hardly notice her night wakings at all and am often not sure if she slept through the night (although a quick feel of my breasts often answers that question for me!).

There are many benefits to sharing a bed with your baby, most notably ease of breastfeeding and better sleep for both mom and baby, but also fostering a stronger connection with your child and helping your child become more independent (yes, people will tell you the opposite is true and they are wrong!).

Now back to safety. I mentioned at the start that public health authorities are wrong to suggest that co-sleeping is unsafe. The full story is that it can be very safe and it can be very unsafe. But rather than telling people to not co-sleep when there are obvious benefits for the parents and the baby, public health authorities should be educating parents about how to make co-sleeping safe. To do otherwise just creates additional stress and anxiety for parents. Those that co-sleep worry they are going to kill their baby and those that don’t aren’t getting enough rest.

Annie is a mother of two and blogs about the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.

If you would like to share a story or information about breastfeeding – please contact me!

22 comments to One Moms View On Breastfeeding And Co-Sleeping

  • There was just a very negative article about co-sleeping in a St. Louis paper, blaming it for any number of deaths. But they did not get into specifics as to how many of the babies were sleeping with their mothers, as opposed to non-parents. No one makes a big deal about babies that die alone in cribs.

  • Mommy News

    I was never a believer in co-sleeping until I became a parent myself. My son slept great in his own bed until I went back to work. Then he missed me during the day and wanted to make up for “lost time” at night – she he started waking up to nurse all night long. So at age 4 months, he ended up sleeping in bed with me – mostly because I was too tired to stay up and nurse him in his room. We coslept until he was nearly a year old when he just got to squirmy. It was a LIFE SAVER for us. My husband used to say that he would wake up during the night and I would be sound asleep, but my little darling would be nursing away! LOL! It was great for both of us. I would definitely do it again and I would probably do it a lot sooner the 2nd time around. — Judy

  • I always wonder when they post the stories of the babies – how many of the mothers were ill, had been smoking, drinking, took medicine of some kind, or the other factors? Was that baby having issues breathing or swallowing and the mom didn’t know something was wrong? There are a number of different factors that they never report – just that baby was in bed with mom. What about the hundreds of babies that sadly pass away in their cribs – could they have been prevented if they were a co-sleeping family?

    If I’m not feeling well then I’ll put my son in the pack-n-play to sleep rather then with me. I am very conscious of where our bodies are in bed. I also sleep between my husband and the baby as I feel that he isn’t as aware of where the baby is as I am.

    Thanks for having this guest, Judy!

  • I have to agree. Life is so much easier for me co-sleeping. I have a sleep disorder and all of the night waking takes an extra toll on me. I am so tired of my mom and my grandma giving me a hard time because I am “spoiling” my son. I co-slept with my daughter and she is three and sleeps alone now so I am not worried about him. I do however need to make and effort to get him to sleep without me because when I go to a birth my husband has a terrible time with him. I love hearing other’s positive co-sleeping stories. Thanks.


  • I slept with my babies from the beginning, and never really knew how often they woke up or fed at night. Much to the chargrin of their pediatricians, who tried to talk me out of breast feeding and co-sleeping. I didn’t care what the doctor had to say though, because that’s the way I was raised, and I had my mind set on it.

  • My daughter just had her first baby and she is struggling with this issue. Her husband is worried she’ll smother the baby so he’s against co-sleeping but it’s not him who is losing sleep. I’m going to share this post with here in hopes that it helps.

    I co-slept with four babies, never had a problem and it was wonderful for all of us.

  • Ruth N.

    I feel like shouting “preach it, sister!”:-) Cosleeping is the best thing for breastfeeding success and for childbirth recovery. I don’t know how in the world a mom could ever get enough sleep if she had to get up in the night to fix bottles. I can only imagine the exhaustion. I hate how I was made to fear sleeping with my first baby. I ended up sleeping with her on the couch, very uncomfortably, so that my husband wouldn’t be afraid of rolling on her.
    And it is so true that the cosleepers become more independent! I started cosleeping with my third, and I really regret not starting out that way. It is so much better for both mom and baby. I always get far more sleep, because feeding baby in the night doesn’t even require fully waking up, let alone getting out of bed. I am now cosleeping with my fifth baby, and it works great. I think it’s the greatest improvement in my parenting that I have made since I first became a mother 10 years ago.
    I wish the press would stress what those people had done wrong to kill those babies, rather than just stressing that they slept with them. If you look into it, usually it’s drugs or alcohol, or someone other than the mom. I would never have anyone other than me cosleep with my baby. My husband is quite aware of our little one in the bed, but I still wouldn’t let her sleep in there with him, without me. I am aware of the risks, and avoid them. And there are far more crib deaths, aren’t there? That should be the focus.
    Thanks for sharing this article!

  • Great post! When my baby was born (nine months ago) I didn’t even think about co-sleeping, I just assumed I had to do it the other way – the TOTALLY EXHAUSTING way! I was so stressed and couldn’t enjoy the blessing of having a little baby because I was too exhausted to care. Later I discovered I could get some rest in bed while she nursed and felt really stupid for not doing it earlier, lol. I don’t know that I’ll co-sleep all the time if I have another baby, but it’s nice to know I have a guilt-free option out there. :-)

  • Once again I wholeheartedly agree with your article. For ten years I have been telling parents to stop listening to what the “experts” tell them to do with their children and instead, to follow their hearts.

    Every book I have ever read which instructs parents to put their babies to bed in another room and separate themselves from the child, so that the child learns to “self-soothe” has either been written by a mother who doesn’t have a breastfeeding child (not at night anyway) or by someone who has only one child and hasn’t had to parent a non-sleeper. The reality is that it is actually safer for babies to sleep in close proximity to their mother in order to reduce the risk of SUDS/SIDS and to help mom get more sleep overall so that she can parent better during the day.

    If parents ARE going to co-sleep (and I meet MANY closet co-sleepers in my line of work) then why condemn it, making parents feel terrible, instead of teaching them the tools to do it safely? Is there no money to be made from teaching parents to create a safe in-bed sleeping environment for their family? I can’t think of any other reason why it would be so important to tell parents to separate themselves from their offspring.

    All of this doesn’t take into consideration that the research also indicates that it *is* safe for baby to sleep in bed with mom most of the time. I know that not everyone wants to share a family bed and that should also be their right to decide and have respected.

    Parenting comes from the heart, not from research papers or from books. I hope you continue to remind parents that they know their family best.

  • PS – if parents want a book to read which outlines HOW to sleep safely with baby in the bed (and one which will help alleviate the fears of the other parent, grandparents or busy-body friends) then they might try seeking out:
    Good Nights: The Happy Parents’ Guide to the Family Bed (and a Peaceful Night’s Sleep!), by Jay Gordon, MD, and Maria Goodavage

  • Thank you everyone for the comments on my guest post.

    I wanted to follow-up on the comment about “self-soothing”. So many people assume it is something you need to teach your child to do. That is not the case. Children will learn to do it in their own time. My daughter is learning quicker than my son did (I still co-sleep with my daughter, but I can hear her wake-up and put herself back to sleep some evenings before I get to bed), but both children know that they can count on us to be there for them if they do need us at night. Rather than being “off limits” to our kids, we are allowing them to gradually move towards self-soothing and let them be the gage of when they need us.

  • […] read more about how public health authorities are trying to make motherhood impossible, check out my guest post on breastfeeding and co-sleeping at a Mother’s Boutique’s Mommy News & Views […]

  • I would get no sleep and wouldn’t be able to function during the day with my preschooler and my infant son if I didn’t resort to cosleeping after breastfeeding at night. My 4 month old son just won’t sleep in his crib at night as of yet!
    BTW I found you via–thanks for the giveaway and I do hope I win!

  • Courtney

    I read PHD in Parenting, and I really enjoy and share all of the information that I get there. On the topic of co-sleeping; I completely agree and love it. I believe that my child is getting better sleep and know that I am. Sometimes he will sleep in his swing if I am overtired or just want to snuggle my husband, but even on nights when I know he would gladly sleep in his swing I keep him in our bed. I like knowing I can feel his heartbeat and that I wake up before he does. It makes me more comfortable. I can also agree that sometimes I do not know whether or not we were awakened in the night other than feeling my breast to see if they are “empty” or not. My husband also likes co-sleeping because he can bond with both of us, since he is gone most of the day.

  • Gina

    A friend of mine told me about waking up to hickeys all over her belly in the morning once her daughter could crawl and I thought “what a wonderful experience to know your child was rooting around while you slept and could satisfy herself on the breast without waking you”.

    Honestly the idea of cosleeping didn’t occur to me when I had my daughter nine months ago. Now I realize it would have been (and still would be) great to get a lot more sleep at night. Maybe we’ll give it a go with our next child.

  • The idea of a parent “overlying” on an infant always seemed patently absurd for me. I slept with a husband for 12 years and never once did I “overly” his thigh (about the size of a newborn infant). Unless someone is drunk or has parts of their body that have no feeling, it just isn’t plausible. What’s more, when one of my babies got a piece of clothing or a sheet or part of a baby sling over their face, they freaked out and started moving and kicking and rolling like crazy to get the thing off. How could a parent not notice that their baby was doing that if they DID accidentally roll over on them? The idea is absurd. I can’t count how many times as a nursing cosleeping mom that I woke a moment before my baby or toddler did. Whether they wanted to nurse or were about to be sick or whatever, my body just did it. Now that the youngest is 3, she wakes up at night to go potty or get a drink of water, and I STILL wake up just before she does. Amazing!

  • Carrie: Read (and also from the same thread). And I’ve read about a case where it happened with a newborn, when the mother was exhausted from labour (she didn’t want the baby in bed with her as felt she was too exhausted, but the midwives insisted).

    The stories show that it *does* happen. I think it’s rare, but I don’t think it’s absurd.

  • I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I have to speak up in defence of the public health authorities here.

    We don’t actually know, from the available data, whether or not co-sleeping is ‘very safe’ even with all advisable precautions. Of course, there is now plenty of evidence that if both parents are non-smokers, and the co-sleeping is on an ordinary mattress and not a sofa or waterbed, and there are no other children in the bed, and the baby isn’t in the first few months of life, then SIDS risk is as low with co-sleeping as with crib sleeping. But that still leaves suffocation risk. So, OK, further evidence suggests that nearly all suffocation deaths in beds are potentially preventable with appropriate precautions – taking care the baby can’t get wedged anywhere, avoiding heavy bedding, not co-sleeping if you’ve drunk alcohol or are taking any drugs that impair your alertness or are excessively exhausted. But, even then, we can’t be sure that the risk is zero, because it’s so difficult to study. And, in the meantime, there’s a whole long list of dos and don’ts that have to be followed if bedsharing isn’t going to be too risky, which exclude huge categories of parents and which are sometimes pretty vague (what counts as ‘appropriate precautions’ against wedging? How exhausted is ‘excessively exhausted’ in new parent terms?)

    So, how do you put all that across to the general public in a way that will be comprehensible to people of a wide range of intelligence and education, plenty of whom are simply not going to read their way down a long list of recommendations and then carefully think about how best to put them into practice? I honestly don’t know what the answer to that is; and I can sympathise with those PHAs who decide that going with the simple, straightforward, ‘avoid bedsharing’ message is the best way. I’m not even saying that I think that’s better either, because I really don’t know. I always think it’s the same dilemma as the one faced by people trying to figure out what to teach teens about sex. On the one hand, the safest option is just not to do it; on the other hand, some people are going to do it no matter what you tell them, and they’re hugely better off knowing how to do it safely. So, you’re faced with figuring out how to put across this mixed message that ideally you’re safest avoiding it altogether but that there are particular ways of doing it that you *really, really*, need to avoid…

    And, yes, I think that the PHAs could do it better than they are doing it. But I also think that they’ve got an impossible task in which they aren’t going to be able to give optimally-pitched information to all of the people all of the time, and I do sympathise with that. And they are, unfortunately, stuck with the fact that co-sleeping *does* carry risks. It may or may not carry inherent risks – we just don’t know. It does carry a lot of risks in terms of the many different ways in which it’s possible to do it unsafely. And it *is* the job of PHAs to warn us when particular behaviours are risky, no matter how unpopular that information is or how little we like to hear it. It’s not just a case of those big meanie PHAs trying to make life difficult for us.

  • @Sarah V.

    I think it has been proven many times over that teaching “abstinence” whether it relates to teenage sex or to co-sleeping causes more damage than teaching people how to do it safely. Is it more difficult to teach them about safety? Sure. Is it worth it? Definitely. It will save lives.

    I agree that one of the problems is that current research isn’t good enough. All of the research that talks about co-sleeping being unsafe doesn’t properly account for the presence or absence or risk factors. Rather than avoiding the issue, perhaps public health authorities should be commissioning better research and using those results to educate the public.

  • Mommy News

    Thanks for your comment Sarah,

    I agree that much more research needs to be done on this and a whole host of other parenting topics. I do think that there are risks of putting an infant in a crib as well. It has long been shown that the presence of crib bumpers cause an increase in the risk of SIDS, yet parents continue to use “pretty” crib bumpers in their children’s beds instead of the safer “breathable” bumpers. I think if we were to go back in time to “caveman” days, we would see that our ancestors ate healthier, shared a family bed and breastfed into toddlerhood. Many of the things that our “modern” society tends to question. It is unfortunate that we don’t have the studies at our fingertips to tell us what is and isn’t safe. As a parent, I think we each have to do what is best for our own situations. Sometimes that will be cosleeping and sometimes it will be sleeping separately. I think for each person it is a very personal decision. I am thankful for people like Annie at PhDinParenting to help to educate those who feel that cosleeping “IS” for them. I wish we had more people willing and able to educate parents on topics such as these.

  • Annie: Fair point, and personally I’m all in favour of trying to inform people fully. However, that seems to be getting mixed up with a couple of other issues here. You’re expressing your belief that co-sleeping must be ‘very safe’ (and if studies show otherwise then that must be because people haven’t done the studies right), and thus implying that PHAs are actually *misinforming* people by telling them that there are risks. That, I think, is unwarranted. So is the implication that the reason PHAs advise against co-sleeping is because they’re a bunch of big bad meanies out to spoil our mothering fun, rather than because they have some important information that does need to be disseminated. Both of those beliefs are muddying the waters here.

    I think it would be better to accept that, whether we like it or not, co-sleeping may not be ‘very safe’. We do have evidence, despite all its flaws, that suggests that there may be some inherent risk, especially in the first few months. At the very least, I think we have to say that we can’t exclude some added risk in comparison to crib sleeping. I think it *is* the job of PHAs to give us that information. I’m quite prepared to accept that they could probably do a better job and that it’s worth us thinking about ways in which it could be done better. But I don’t think it’s helpful to be all up in arms that they’ve dared to tell us something that we’d prefer not to be true. What we’d prefer or not prefer doesn’t really come into what the evidence shows.

    BTW, what actual examples of public messages were you thinking of? All I know of is the ‘babies sleep safest alone’ campaign in NY, which definitely needs a rephrase of the slogan, but, other than that, seemed to strike a reasonable balance when I checked out their webpage. In fact, my main concern would be that they don’t warn about *enough* of the potential risk factors in co-sleeping (they don’t mention the risks of sleeping with smokers, or of co-sleeping for very young babies).

  • Sarah, there are lots of risks with co-sleeping. I don’t have any problem with PHAs talking about the risks. I think they should do more of that because it will help to prevent deaths. What I object to is when they say it is unsafe to bed share/co-sleep and the only safe place for an infant is in a crib. Period.

    Instead of telling parents not to co-sleep, they should say that it is potentially dangerous and if you choose to do it you should take precautions to ensure that the co-sleeping environment is as safe as possible and then explain what those precautions are. But they don’t do that. They just tell you that your baby can die, so don’t do it.

    In terms of examples other than the New York one that you mentioned, there are also these (this is just a quick sample that I pulled together – I know there are others):

    – Missouri: Title: “Experts: ‘Co-sleeping’ with baby never OK” and First paragraph: “Unsafe sleep practices are causing otherwise healthy babies to die in the city of St. Louis, city police and medical experts said Friday. They said preventing such deaths is as easy as ABC – a baby should sleep Alone, on its Back and in a Crib.”

    – Ontario: Unsafe sleeping environments – Infants should sleep alone and on a surface specifically designed for infant sleep. The Paediatric Death
    Review Committee stresses the importance of not bed-sharing, particularly with infants under the age of 12 months.

    – Coventry, UK: Says co-sleeping is risky and dangerous and only suggests separate cot as an alternative.

    – Los Angeles: “Los Angeles County officials Wednesday urged parents to avoid the increasingly popular practice of sleeping in the same bed as their infant children, calling the practice a “potentially lethal act.””

    – U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: “”Don’t sleep with your baby or put the baby down to sleep in an adult bed,” said CPSC Chairman Ann Brown. “The only safe place for babies is in a crib that meets current safety standards and has a firm, tight-fitting mattress. Place babies to sleep on their backs and remove all soft bedding and pillow-like items from the crib.””

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