I don’t know what it is, but when a woman has a baby, everyone forgets how to make conversation with her. It’s as if staring at a new baby for too long makes their brain switch off and the mouth blurts out strange small talk one-liners.
‘Is he a good baby?’, ‘How does he sleep?’ A great, albeit sarcastic, answer would be to say ‘with his eyes closed’.
The reality is, babies don’t sleep what our society would deem as ‘well’. They sleep like a baby, which just happens to mean anywhere between two to twenty wakings in a night. We need to do better in supporting new parents through this.
How We Are Failing Women And Babies
SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Cot Death), where a baby dies in their sleep from an unknown cause, is every parent’s worst nightmare. Having a baby can be really exhausting, and we are doing families a huge disservice by giving them generic advice based on policies and organisational safeguards.
What I mean is this. The majority of families will tell you they were advised by health care professionals to prevent SIDS by sleeping baby on their back, swaddled, in their own sleep space, and never in the bed. Yet statistics show most parents have had their baby in the bed with them at some stage.
There is an obvious disparity between what we do culturally and instinctively as parents, and the advice we receive regarding safety in the home.
As a Midwife and a Mama, this concerns me for several reasons.
Families are not receiving all the evidence and information on safe sleeping, so how can they make an informed choice for their circumstance? They are unlikely to go and look into safe sleeping, or even know where to find it, because ‘the Midwife said do this…’
Parents are more likely to feel they are doing the wrong thing by having their baby in the bed, and have even reported lying to health care providers about where baby sleeps, meaning a missed opportunity to discuss safe bed-sharing strategies.
It also completely disregards the reality of motherhood, and how challenging it can be.
By not giving women the full story on safe infant sleeping, we are setting a Mother up to feel guilt for following the biological norm, and telling her to ignore her maternal instincts.
So what is the REAL safe sleeping information families should know?
Getting The Terminology Right First
The first thing you need to know is the correct terminology. I always hear people say co-sleeping is dangerous, they’d never take the risk. Usually, people who haven’t had kids yet. But what they mean to say here is ‘bed-sharing’ or ‘sofa-sharing’.
This is inaccurate in several ways. ‘Co-sleeping’ for the first 6-12 months is actually advised by Red Nose (a leading educator in the prevention of SIDS). Whilst bed-sharing can both be a suitable sleep option or dangerous.
Co-sleeping: Sleeping in close proximity to your child, such as a bassinet in your room.
Bed-sharing: Parent/s or caregivers sleeping with baby in their bed.
Sofa-sleeping: Parent/s or caregivers sleeping on a sofa/armchair with baby.
Safe sleep environment: Firm mattress, no loose bedding, no beanie, no toys, no pillows or doonas, no thick bumpers (mesh ok), baby’s feet to the bottom of cot/bassinet, sleeping on back only, not elevated or turned onto side.
The Safe Sleep 7 For Safer Bed-sharing
Once you understand the terminology, you need to know the Safe Sleep 7 for Safer Bed Sharing (La Leche League International).
- No smoking – in the home our out. If you are a smoker, smoke outside well away from doors/windows, and wash hands, brush teeth, and change shirt as soon as you enter the home, though bed-sharing may not be a safe option for you.
2. Sober parents – no alcohol, drugs, or drowsy medications.
3. Breastfed infant through the day and night.
4. Full term (37-42 weeks), healthy baby.
5. Baby on their back.
6. No sweat, no swaddle, no beanie.
7. Safe bed surface.
Personally, I always add in no other children in the bed.
Benefits of Bed-Sharing
So, of course, the first thing I have to list here is – sanity. Bed-sharing can save your sanity!
Any exhausted parent who can’t remember the day of the week, or how many times they woke through the night will tell you everyone gets a better sleep when bed-sharing with a baby.
Bed-sharing is also one of the Attachment Parenting Principles by Dr William Sears, and can help improve a baby/toddler’s development, behaviour, independence and connection into their later years.
It can help breastfed babies rouse themselves, not fully awake, but in a way which promotes lighter sleep, which is safer for newborns.
Parents can meet baby’s needs without getting up. Often mothers will roll over and breastfeed without even waking or realising they’ve done so, until they wake up with a breast hanging out their top.
Bed-sharing promotes bonding and secure attachment, as well as less nighttime crying.
It can also benefit a Mama’s milk supply… not to mention all the oxytocin and endorphins that come with snuggly baby cuddles.
When Sharing A Sleep Surface Isn’t Safe
For the species to survive, women are literally biologically programmed to be hypervigilant once they’ve birthed their babe. That’s why you can be in a deep sleep and spring out of bed to baby’s first little sounds at the speed of light. This is a protective mechanism, but some things can hinder it.
Times of illness, smoking, drugs and alcohol, drowsy medications, and times of extreme exhaustion or recovery (eg. immediately post caesarean) can limit a Mama’s or parent’s ability to rouse to their infant, and increases the risk of SIDS.
Another big no-no at any time is sharing a sleep surface other than a bed. Sofas, armchairs, and beanbags are out as they drastically increase the risk of SIDS due to suffocation and airway obstruction.
If you are sitting on the sofa or an armchair feeding baby, and are struggling to stay awake, you’re better off taking babe into bed and following the Safe Sleep 7 principles.
Hear It From The Experts
I wouldn’t blame you if you’re still not convinced and unsure about the ‘evidence’. Our society is incredibly backwards for a developing country.
With the rise in so called sleep trainers and cry-it-out, and cult books with harmful advice like Save Our Sleep, we are moving further away from our biological and instinctual, ingrained ability to parent in ways which help our children thrive. The vulnerabilities of exhausted new parents are preyed upon, and it’s a lucrative market.
Professor James McKenna, the world’s leading authority on mother-infant co-sleeping in relation to breastfeeding and SIDS, can say it far better than I ever could. Grab a cup of tea and click here to listen to him discuss co-sleeping, bed-sharing, sofa-sleeping and how to prevent SIDS and help your baby thrive… while not exhausting yourself even more so in the process.