How to safely co-sleep – and the positive impact it could have on your baby
It’s a decision that is not taken on lightly by parents and one that isn’t without controversy or risk – should I co-sleep with my child?
Co-sleeping, by definition, is not necessarily sharing a bed with your children but sharing the experience of sleep in close proximity.
Many jump to the conclusion when discussing co-sleeping that it means to have your newborn in bed with you.
This is a huge misconception and one that I will say from the outset, despite my stance in favour of co-sleeping, is a huge risk. A baby below six months at the very least should not share your bed for a number of factors, but most notably a baby’s inability to communicate if something like temperature is not right.
Additionally, babies tend not to be able to change their position unaided at that stage and so the nightmare-ish fear of rolling onto your child while sleeping, which puts a lot of parents off, is a real risk here.
The NHS tends to have a blanket stance against co-sleeping and parents really need to weigh up their own situations and practicalities to make a sound judgement. But while it is a heavy debate, with many benefits and drawbacks cited, one thing every charity and specialist will agree on is that a baby below six months, at least, should not share your bed.
However, that’s not to say that they can’t enjoy the benefits of co-sleeping as a crib by the side of the bed, where they can experience your breathing and feel close to you, is perfectly safe and acceptable.
Better for parents, too, as they don’t have a long way to trek when baby inevitably wakes up in the night.
What are the benefits of co-sleeping?
Your child is constantly developing and the more sleep they get, the more this is uninterrupted. They also take a huge influence from you, so whether it’s a young baby in a crib beside your bed or an older child toddler age cuddling up with you, there is a communication that benefits both child and parent.
Heart rates, brain waves, sleep states, oxygen levels, temperature, and breathing influence one another, making for a restful night and a growing bond as well as development in a child’s growth and health.
Better sleep for you both
Babies need to be close to their parent; this is why initial skin to skin contact in the moments after birth is important to console a stressed child and form that initial bond which is so important. This doesn’t stop at the maternity ward though.
A small study of 25 four- to ten-month-old babies, who were separated for sleep training, showed that even though the babies’ behaviour settled on the third night, their levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) remained high. Similar studies carried out on monkeys showed high stress levels when babies were separated from their mothers.
Increased stress leads to interrupted sleep time for babies and thus a direct impact on development. If your baby has had a restless sleep then their development during the day, including their communication attempts and cognitive skills are lessened.
And it’s not just for the baby. Sleep deprivation is a huge risk factor in women who may suffer post partum psychosis. This directly links to the belief that co-sleeping, as it can bring deeper sleep and less anxiety, can ease the risk of post partum difficulties.
Research suggests that more well-rested parents make better decisions and, importantly, have better emotion regulation. This is better for everyone.
What about dad?
Fathers who bedshare benefit in other ways, too: One study found that when fathers slept close to their babies, their testosterone dropped more compared to fathers who slept separately.
Men with lower testosterone will engage more calmly and effectively with babies, which leads to more serene atmosphere, lessened anxiety and better decision making. It is important for a baby, where possible, to bond with both mum and dad, where the baby feels safe and bonded to all caregivers, the stress is much less, giving the child more time to focus on developing.
Believe it or not, co-sleeping children will transition to lone sleeping much easier
On average, children who bedshare will be later in finding independent sleep but because of their positive relationship with sleep, the results tend to lead to a much better outcome, as they may be more independent, self-reliant, and confident in their daily lives than children who haven’t experienced the closeness of co-sleeping.
In all aspects of childcare, I believe showing tough love to babies and children as a measure of making them more independent, to be a much inferior technique than showing love and allowing confidence at their own pace, in the knowledge that you have their back.
Let’s not forget the more obvious benefits
Close contact with your baby at night time makes things a lot more practical in the sense that you don’t have to go far to tend to their needs and also there is a definite intimacy and joy at having your child close by.
It also is a great aid to breastfeeding, making it a much more comfortable and easier process for mums.
‘There is an instinctive need for the mother to be close to her baby,’ Cynthia Epps, M.S. a certified lactation educator at the Pump Station in Santa Monica explains.
‘Working women who don’t get to see their babies all day may be especially attracted to co-sleeping to make up for the missed contact.
‘Keeping the baby close, with skin-to-skin contact, calms the baby and it can cement the emotional bond between mother and child.’
How to co-sleep safely
As a childcare practitioner, co-sleeping is something I advocate and I have seen positive results in families I have worked with for many years.
That said, it stands to reason that there are safety measures to bear in mind to ensure that it is practised with low risk. So what should you do?
Keep pillows, sheets and blankets away from your baby or any other items that could obstruct your baby’s breathing or cause them to overheat.
There is an increased risk of SIDs if the baby is too close to heavy blankets and has increased temperature.
Avoid letting pets or other children in the bed – particularly if your child is still fairly young. Children move a lot in their sleep and they need to have the space and freedom to do this, without obstruction.
Make sure baby won’t fall out of bed or get trapped between the mattress and the wall. All spaces must be closed for all eventualities.
When not to co-sleep
There are also some circumstances in which co-sleeping with your baby can be very dangerous and shouldn’t be done in any capacity. If any of the following applies to you, do not co-sleep at all and seek any advice from your GP or midwife.
- Either you or your partner smokes (even if you do not smoke in the bedroom)
- Either you or your partner has ingested any alcohol or taken drugs (including medications that may make you drowsy)
- Your baby was born premature (before 37 weeks)
- Your baby was born at a low weight (2.5kg or 5½ lbs or less)
- Never sleep on a sofa or armchair with your baby, this can increase the risk of SIDS by 50 times
Co-sleeping has so many benefits and, providing all safety measures are adhered to, it can really increase intimate bonds and development and give everyone a more comfortable night’s sleep, which makes those daytimes more relaxed and easier to manage.
However, it is a decision you must explore fully and, ideally with input and discussion with someone with expertise such as your GP or midwife.
If there are any risk factors at all, err on the side of caution at least until you have fully researched and discussed your options.
If co-sleeping is for you, ensure you are completely across any safety measures to practise it with minimal risk.
Finally, with all of this in hand, enjoy the experience, the joy of bonding and the closeness and intimacy it brings to family life.
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