You would think we give birth to aliens judging by how complex our society reacts to infant sleep. We approach it as this foreign concept that requires books, strict training regimens and varying coaching methods … for sleep.
It starts during our pregnancies as we fill the four walls of our freshly painted nurseries with fancy cribs. As we shop for bedding to go with it, this is our first introduction to infant sleep as we read about what constitutes a safe sleep environment. Firm mattress. Crib slats no wider than 2 and 3/8 inches. Tight, fitted sheet. No pillows. No blankets. No bumper pads, but if you must, the breathable ones.
The best crib is basically a glorified box – and for good reason. This eliminates suffocation hazards. Should a blanket, pillow or stuffed animal fall over a baby’s face, they are too young to be able to effectively move in a way that frees them.
Add to the suffocation hazards the worry of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) – a mysterious medical condition that still stumps medical professionals. It is separate from suffocation, even though we often get inundated with messaging that blurs the two. SIDS is an unexplained natural death due to medical abnormality. It is not environmental, preventable or accidental like suffocation is.
On that note, meet “Back is Best.” This is the new recommendation, which will make any grandma and grandpa today roll their eyes as they recall just the opposite when they raised us. “We put you on your tummy and you turned out just fine, didn’t ya!”
We did. But “Back is Best” is plastered on posters all over the doctors’ offices. It is even embroidered in my swaddle blankets. And rightfully so, as this recommendation is backed by plenty of research.
Phew! Are you stressed yet? Before the baby is even here, the idea of bedtime with a baby sounds as terrifying as swimming with sharks. It’s no wonder I called the labor and delivery nurses in to our recovery room at 1 a.m. to have them double check that my baby’s inclination to sleep on his side was okay. It’s no wonder I bawled my eyes out the first night home with him because I felt like bedtime was a tragedy waiting to happen. It’s no wonder my anxiety shot through the roof in those early weeks as I sacrificed my own sleep to ensure that his chest was rising up and down throughout the night.
It’s no wonder I started bed sharing … *Gasp!*
I started this type of co-sleeping (sleeping with, next to or in the same room as baby) before I even understood it as a valid arrangement, not because it was convenient, but because it was the most instinctive. It just felt right, especially with how often he needed to nurse.
But it is a taboo topic, and so I kept this arrangement “under the covers” at first.
But I’m a horrible liar, clearly. I’m tired of checking off the little box at his monthly well checks obliging to crib sleeping, when in reality his crib is currently serving as a giant laundry basket. I’m tired of answering to friends and family that we’re “only doing it temporarily because of breastfeeding,” when in reality there is no end in sight because it is the best arrangement we have found. I’m tired of talking to other moms who do the same thing, but also feel the need to lie to avoid the irrational judgment from others who haven’t done the research on it.
And there is plenty of research on it. Fascinating facts that shed light on how distorted our society has it when it comes to infant sleep. For starters, a well-adapted infant actually does not always sleep through the night, nor does sleeping in isolation constitute a “good baby.”
So I’m speaking out, even though my reach will be minimal. I’m just your average work-from-home mommy learning my baby one day at a time. But here it goes:
We bed share. Not because we are lazy. Just the opposite, actually. How easy would it be to cultivate our baby to independence from day 1, keeping our adult bedrooms a sacred space free of evidence that we are now parents? But part of becoming a parent is sacrificing your wants for their needs, and because we now know that babies are incapable of having wants due to how underdeveloped their brains are at birth, we know that such bedtime cries are calls for basic needs to be met – basic needs for nourishment and nurturing, which co-sleeping fulfills.
This is not about convincing every family to conform to co-sleeping. Every baby is different and I encourage parents to find their own way. This is about giving validity to co-sleeping as a safe option – because it is a safe option, and it is not discussed fairly.
Take it from James McKenna, the world’s leading authority on mother-infant co-sleeping in relationship to breastfeeding and SIDS.
Humans evolved to have the largest brains of any primate, so with this change, infants needed to be born ‘earlier’—partly due to the need to fit through the birth canal and partly due to the placenta’s inability to sustain such huge brain growth. The result is that human neonates are by far the most helpless at birth of any animal and require constant nourishment and care …
Until recent history (in Western industrialized societies), no human (primate) ancestral or modern infant ever slept separated from its caregiver. “
Sleeping with your baby is not new. It is the most longstanding arrangement. And with this, comes tangible benefits. Co-sleeping actually reduces the risk of SIDS. A mother’s heartbeat regulates her baby’s heartbeat, and her body temperature regulates that of her baby’s. A mother’s milk also provides vital nourishment during those mid-night wakings.
Much of Western sleep research is flawed because it uses a cultural construct as its base and focuses on infant sleep consolidation (i.e., “sleeping through the night”) at the expense of breastfeeding—both of which (fewer arousals and artificial baby milk feeding) are risk factors for SIDS.”
And when it comes to suffocation hazards, co-sleeping is no more dangerous than a crib so long as you approach it the same: no extra pillows or blankets near the baby and a firm mattress. The only additional safety measure is on the parents: Those who smoke or drink alcohol should not co-sleep.
Fancy research aside, you want to know how it really works? Like magic, I tell you.
It is peaceful. It is rejuvenating. It is natural. It is restful. It is motherhood at its raw roots. It is nothing to hide.