Co-sleeping Basics

Mother and Baby sleeping

If you’ve heard about co-sleeping but you just aren’t sure how to co-sleep with your baby, we have the basics for you.

Once you know the basics, you’ll realize how easy it is to satisfy the needs of baby and parent.

Among my fondest of parenting memories is sleeping with a baby on one side an a toddler on the other, feeling warm next to my two children, falling asleep loving them so much I could burst.

How to Co-sleep

Designate a space. The baby shouldn’t go between two adults. I put my baby on the outside of me, toward the wall, and my toddler between me and my husband. When our babies were a bit older, we also used sheepies from our cousins in New Zealand (and ALL babies in New Zealand sleep on sheepskins), so the sleeping space was clearly marked. My sheepie = my space.

Get rid of heavy covers. Not only can heavy blankets or comforters be a risk for your baby, most babies will wiggly off even a light blanket. A baby sleeping bag will keep your baby warm. You might wish for your own sleeping bag.

Remove pillows. Usually your baby will be sleeping lower than your pillow (mouth to breast, most likely), but make sure there is no chance of your baby creeping under a pillow. If you can sleep without, you can prevent that happening.

Separate the siblings. When your baby is young (under one year), you should separate siblings. Your baby needs a responsible adult nearby.

Remove toys. First of all, very young babies don’t need toys. More important, you shouldn’t have hard or soft objects like that near the sleeping space.

Should You Co-Sleep with Your Baby?

You are the one who should decide. You will probably get opinions from healthcare providers, family, and others. Just make sure you understand that we are emerging from an era of pressure NOT to sleep anywhere near our children into a time of more open acknowledgment of the benefits of co-sleeping.

Even Dr. Richard Ferber, for whom “Ferberizing” (the cry-it-out method of sleep training) is named, changed his mind about co-sleeping in his 2006 revision of his oft-misused book on infant sleep. He acknowledges that there are many healthy ways for a family to sleep.

Knowing this, you can look for opinions that are based in the 21st century and based on fulfilling the needs of babies and families.

In addition to giving your baby what she or he wants—YOU—sleeping near one another makes your life easier.

For breastfeeding mothers, it is so convenient to have your baby right next to you at night. You don’t need to wake up all of the way, get up in the cold, go to a differet room to answer a baby who is distressed enough to cry so you will hear. Baby fusses, mother wakes enough to feed the baby, then everyone falls back asleep.

When You Shouldn’t Co-sleep with Your Baby

There can be risks when a big person sleeps next to a small person or when a small person could slip into soft spaces. If any of the risks are present, co-sleeping is not recommended.

Some issues involve the bed and bedding. Do not co-sleep with:

  • No bed. Do not sleep with your baby on a soft surface when the baby can slip into spaces (such as between cushions).
  • Loose pillows
  • Heavy blankets or covers

Some issues involve the adult sleeping with the baby. The adult nees to be able to wake easily. Do not co-sleep if:

  • Adult is a smoker
  • Adult has been drinking or has taken drugs, even prescription sedatives
  • Adult is over tired
  • Adult is morbidly obese

In some of these situations, you can still have your baby nearby on a separate surface without risk.

More Co-sleeping Help

Because there is so much misinformation about babies and sleep in western cultures, it has taken some time to pull the norm back to a place it can benefits babies and families.

One place working to help parents and healthcare providers get accurate research on normal, healthy sleep is the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at University of Notre Dame. Their focus is “how sleeping environments reflect and respond to family needs—in particular how they affect mothers, breastfeeding, and infants’ physiological and psychological well-being and development.”

If you want to know more about the science of sleeping next to a baby, this is a great resource. If you need information (downloadable articles, links to videos) for family or doctor, you will find those here as well.

Also, Dr. Sears (the multiple Drs. Sears) share stories of co-sleeping from their own family and from parents in “Co-sleeping: Yes, No, Sometimes?”

Why Co-sleeping

Last week, in our post “Helping Your Baby Sleep with Love and Compassion,” we mentioned co-sleeping or family bed—the practice of sleeping with your child. This post was more about the fact that co-sleeping helps a lot of families get more sleep more calmly. It touches on why families share a bed.

That got us thinking that some parents might just be looking for a basic how-to guide. We hope this helps.

If you are interested to know how the North American reluctance to share a family bed compares to the rest of the world, I repeat my recommendation that you read Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents around the World Can Teach Us (2013). The chapter “Sleep Time: Keep Our Babies Close or Give Them Space?” is a gentle survey of world practices.

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Helping Your Baby Sleep with Love and Compassion

Mother watching sleeping baby

Is your baby not sleeping through the night? That’s normal. It’s less common that a baby does sleep for long periods without waking, but norms don’t tell you what your baby needs. Babies’ needs differ.

A compassionate approach to parenting seeks to understand and meet needs—your baby’s needs, certainly, but also your own needs. Part of the challenge is separating your real needs from those cultural assumptions you have acquired from the people around you.

If you are experiencing enough disruption in nighttime sleeping patterns that you want to know how to help your baby sleep, I hope this helps. I have been there, and I remember how it felt.

Helping Baby Sleep

In cultures where there is less anxiety around the idea of how and where babies sleep, it would make no sense at all to give advice on helping baby sleep. Having read about babies’ sleep in other cultures (see Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting without Borders below), I’m convinced that this is only a topic among North American parents because of a cultural anxiety that was introduced by an adult need to control children.

Nevertheless, you start where you are. If you already have sleep issues to deal with, you may need tips to help your baby sleep.

Start with your baby’s needs. Hunger, warmth, calm. Hunger and warmth are easy enough needs to meet most of the time. Calm can be more elusive. Create a calming routine with calming associations. All of the senses can contribute: sound (sing a lullaby), smell (most likely the smell of you), sight (darkness will probably help), touch (soft pajamas, soft blanket, sheepie), and maybe taste (breastfeeding while falling asleep).

For a great list of practical suggestions based on decades of experience with parents, see Ask Dr Sears, “31 Ways to Get Your Baby to Sleep and Stay Asleep.”

Also consider your own needs. You may be tired. You may need to trade off with another adult just for a while. Don’t take your frustrations out on your baby, though. Don’t make sleep an issue for your baby just because it is an issue for you.

If you don’t have your baby yet, start by letting go of assumptions that could cause problems. Read Parenting without Borders, so you will have a point of reference when doctors, your parents, and other well-meaning experts offer you advice on sleep and other aspects of parenting.

Co-sleeping or Family Bed

Again, in the context of family sleeping habits around the world and through history, it is strange to have to justify family members sleeping next to one another. It makes more sense to me to ask why some believe babies should be separated to sleep alone, since that is uncommon anywhere else in the world. The usual answer is that it will make them more independent, but research doesn’t show this result from separate sleep.

If we sleep better with our babies and if our babies sleep better with us, we should be sleeping next to one another. It makes waking in the night much easier and shorter. Everyone wakes in the night. How we handle that now can shape how our children handle that in their future.

You do need to remove risk factors, such as drug and alcohol use, smoking, water beds, sofas, and heavy bedding over the baby.

If you or your spouse have any of the risk factors, or if you don’t sleep better with your baby, don’t. A bassinet next to your bed can still give you the convenience of closeness that a separate nursery does not.

Will They Remember?

Human epigenetic memory of being stressed as a child can be passed on and will be encoded in the genes of the stressed person. The new field of behavioral epigenetics studies how and to what extent this happens. I have yet to see a study on the specific epigenetic effects of babyhood stress on an adult, but I don’t doubt it will come.

The simplest point to remember is: a stressful experience as a baby will have a effect. What effect? The science is out, but don’t believe those who tell you that a baby won’t remember being left to cry, so it doesn’t matter. The stress your baby feels now matters now and it can matter long into the future as epigentic memory can be passed on to future children and grandchildren.

When you meet your child’s needs with love and compassion, they learn to meet their own needs without the stress of worrying about the absense of your comforting presence.

Ask the Experts about Sleeping Babies

Christine Gross-Loh, “Sleep Time: Keep Our Babies Close or Give Them Space?” in Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents around the World Can Teach Us (2013).

“Where should your baby sleep? Wherever he sleeps best.”

Ask Dr Sears, the website of the Sears family of pediatricians, gives quick answers to common sleep issues.

“Sleeping with Hayden opened our hearts and minds to the fact that there are many nighttime parenting styles, and parents need to be sensible and use whatever arrangement gets all family members the best night’s sleep.”

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New Father Gifts

Father kissing his newborn baby“What are the best new father gifts?,” I asked my husband. Without hesitation, he said, “A sling.” With a little encouragement, he came up with two more gifts that would also help a new father in his new role as part of an attachment family.


Baby Carrier

Maya Wrap baby slingsMy husband is so convinced that a baby carrier is the most essential baby gear for a new father that he said he would take the sling and leave absolutely everything else, including the cloth diapers. “Really?” I asked. “Yes, I could practice elimination communication.” So, in a poll of one husband, a baby carrier wins 100% support from fathers.

Maya Wrap

I’m sure that my husband would like other baby carriers and other styles if he tried them, but he also insisted that I should list Maya Wrap for a specific reason. When our babies would fall asleep in the sling, he could very easily loosen the sling and ease the sleeping baby onto the bed. Then, the tail of the unthreaded sling can be used as a light blanket.


Blender

My husband’s second most used tool for early parenthood was a juicer. During my pregnancies and when I was breastfeeding full-time, I got a lot of dense nutrition from beautiful, dark vegetables. One problem, though, was cleaning our juicer. It took 30 minutes every time we used it. Cleaning out every little piece of the juicer became a disincentive. Once we got a Vita-Mix, those days were gone.

Vita-Mix

Smoothie ToolsA breastfeeding mother needs great nutrition and a lot of fluids. Juiced vegetables and a variety of smoothies help her keep up with the demands of a hungry newborn baby. Who ends up juicing and making the smoothies? Daddy does it. In my house, while the mother sits down to nurse, the father heads to the kitchen to make a snack for her. A great blender will make his job much easier.

I’ve written about and photographed my Vita-Mix for smoothie posts and even for our surprise pumpkin soup. We didn’t have this when we were new parents, but we would have used it every day—several times a day. The best part about a VitaMix over a juicer is that the pulp is blended in rather than separated.

Pillow

Figuring out the family bed isn’t difficult, but it sometimes helps to have a couple of tools to make it easier. The last gift my husband suggests for a new father is a bolster pillow that keeps the baby safe in the family bed. Having the whole family sleep in one bed is the best way to ensure that everyone gets as much sleep as they need. Sleep is a big issue for new parents, so anything that helps here is a great gift for a new father.


TresTria bolster pillow

TresTria co-sleeping pillowWe did not have TresTria when my babies were little, but I loved learning more about TresTria, natural rubber, and the company that makes it when I wrote a profile of Better for Babies last year. This pillow was invented by a father to help co-sleeping families.

Last week I wrote about new mother gifts to support babywearing, cloth diapering, and breastfeeding. The best gifts are those have been helpful or meaningful to the giver. When you tell a new parent “I found this helpful when my first baby was born” or “I wish I had this when I was starting out,” the gift is far more than a consumer product to go on a shelf. A much-loved item offered to a new parent is a loving embrace in support of their new parenthood.

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Saturday Night Camp Out

Family bed pillow fightEvery Saturday night, my family fills our living room with every couch cushion in the house, wall to wall, and we camp out. We always fall asleep watching a movie we intend to see to the end, though we always fall asleep, and we always wake up and have breakfast back on the big bed. It’s scheduled magic.

I’m back to reading The Creative Family: How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections, from the Baby by Nature store.

In her chapter on “Everyday Rituals,” Amanda Blake Soule makes the point that finding time for our creativity and family closeness is often an obstacle. She suggests making appointments and planning for those activities that nurture us.

One of the family rituals she suggests is meeting in bed at the beginning of the day, crayons and paper in hand, to come up with a prioritized list of the day’s activities.

In my family, we start our meeting early.

Once we fit every cushion in the house together around the furniture, like a giant puzzle, we cover it all with a sheet and a king-sized comforter. It looks remarkably like the set up when my children build a fort. We sit on top of and around one another, piled like puppies (including the puppy), have a snack, and watch a movie. Sidney Poitier and Cary Grant are household names; my children know the difference between Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn. We watch the same movies over and over, and we talk and sing along. Then, we fall asleep.

It’s completely predictable, and we love this time together. We protect it. We turn down invitations for Saturdays.

Until a few years ago, we all slept in a king-sized bed together. Some of my dearest memories of my children as toddlers are falling asleep between them, listening to them sleep, holding them both in my arms. When we moved, we didn’t have a bedroom big enough for our family bed, so we just have an open invitation to children. But, that doesn’t happen often.

Now, the Saturday night camp out gives us that close time to look forward to every week.

I appreciate the reminder from The Creative Family that we need to schedule that family time before busy tasks. Those family rituals that keep us close are a higher priority than grouting the kitchen or sweeping up stray leaves, though we have those fun chores scheduled this weekend as well.

“In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.” ~Tao Te Ching, quoted in “Everyday Rituals,” The Creative Family

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