“I have a secret,” a new mom pulled me aside and whispered. “My baby sleeps in my bed. I’m worried I’m putting her at risk.”
Sadly, these types of secrets are shared with moms like me all the time. By moms like me, I mean modern moms who openly embrace traditional parenting practices like bed-sharing. While normally a private person, I’ve outed myself to help fill a huge information gap for new parents.
If infant sleep is such a vital issue for new parents, and new babies have been sleeping in their mothers’ arms since time began, then why is bed-sharing such a taboo subject?
A 1999 CPSC Safety Alert warned the public not to bring babies into adult beds after recording 515 bed-sharing deaths over an eight-year period. The medical community took decisive action, creating poster campaigns and educating new parents about the dangers of bed-sharing.
If you compare these 515 bed-sharing losses to the number of SIDS deaths (AKA crib deaths) across the same eight-year period, you’ll find 33,837. So why the uproar over just 1.5% of sleep-related infant deaths over a decade? The answer lies beyond the scope of this post, but I believe our cultural ideas about early independence have shaped our authorities’ attitudes toward bed-sharing.
The fact is, the vast majority of these tragic bed-sharing deaths were preventable – caused by major risk factors like drug or alcohol use by a caretaker, bulky bedding, sofa-sleeping, or bed frames with gaps that entrapped babies. A safe-sleeping checklist could have literally made the difference between life and death.
Today, most new parents leave the hospital armed with actionable tips to prevent SIDS. Such education efforts have successfully halved annual SIDS deaths over the past 20 years. Yet we still lose over 2,000 babies a year to SIDS! Compare this to about 60 bed-sharing deaths per year, most of which could be prevented by a shift in the “abstinence” policy embraced by U.S. authorities. Pretending that bed-sharing is not an option is a major disservice to the more than 13% of Americans who openly bed-share, and the many thousands of families who do so privately.
Sadly, parents who respond to their babies’ needs by sharing sleep are swimming against the mainstream. While some speak out confidently, many keep quiet and treat their sleeping arrangement as a shameful secret. This despite bed-sharing being statistically safer than crib-sleeping. It’s kind of like hiding the fact that you strap your baby into a carseat when going for a drive.
Keeping our babies alive is our #1 responsibility as new parents, but the numbers are just one side of the co-sleeping story.
Hands down, bringing my baby into bed was the single most transformative tool that allowed our whole family to sleep peacefully during those crucial first months together.
New babies have tiny stomachs, and they require frequent feedings for physical and emotional nourishment. By keeping babies close in the nighttime hours, parents can maximize sleep time for the whole family.
Babies are also nourished by touch, a key element to their survival and sense of security in those early months. A baby needs frequent loving touch to anchor himself in his new world, to form a secure attachment to his caregivers, and to facilitate strong brain development and emotional regulation skills.
And yes, we’ve all heard the popular refrain about how you can “spoil” your baby by holding him too much, or meeting his needs too regularly. Not only has science disproven this sad notion, it also defies common sense. How did you feel when you were little and your parents didn’t soothe your tears? Angry? Resentful? Alone? How did you feel when they comforted you? Loved? Cherished? Valued? Spoiling comes from overindulging wants, like toys, candy and television. Not from meeting needs. And definitely not from loving your baby.
Most of us who have been through what I like to call “baby boot camp” – those first three months caring for a newborn – are familiar with the rhythm of sleepless nights. The baby cries, and is soothed to sleep in mom or dad’s arms. The baby is put down to sleep in his bassinette or crib, and promptly wakes up screaming. Repeat, ad infinitum.
Sleepless nights not only make us crazy, they also can make us resent our little ones. Why can’t they sleep like a “normal baby,” we wonder. It rarely occurs to us that normal babies don’t sleep in cribs.
Cribs were invented by entrepreneurs, not delivered by the stork. They are not the natural state of affairs for babies. Cribs don’t meet babies’ need for closeness to their caregivers, nor access to food sources. In fact, cribs block those two essential needs.
Leading sleep researcher Dr. James McKenna comments in The Other Baby Book, “Human infants are not designed to sleep alone, as they are born exceedingly neurologically immature. The best protection you can give your baby is to never let your baby sleep alone.”
Practicing safe bed-sharing was my “Aha” moment. My baby slept contentedly by my side, waking briefly to nurse throughout the night. The act of nursing released the blissful mothering hormones oxytocin and prolactin, which easily lulled me back to sleep. No more hauling my butt out of bed in the middle of the night for feedings; no more miserable hours wasted trying to keep us both awake to finish a feeding.
It’s no wonder so many moms do what comes naturally to bring peace to their babies. Bed-sharing is a miracle-drug for new mom and baby sleep.
Miriam J. Katz is co-author of The Other Baby Book: A Natural Approach to Baby’s First Year, where you can find a guide to safe co-sleeping and other fun tools. Miriam is a career and life coach whose passion is to help women realize their life purpose. She lives in Boston with her husband and daughter.