After the birth of our son, my husband and I learned that co-sleeping was not only safe and allowed everyone to get more sleep, but it also made us feel more connected.
At first, like many families, my husband and I did not consider co-sleeping an option during my first pregnancy. It seemed dangerous and at the least, lazy, so we planned not to make it a habit. Then my son was born.
The first night we brought him home, we placed him in the bassinet next to the bed between feedings. I noticed when he woke up, which was frequently as is normal for newborns, he seemed startled and instantly upset.
So I pulled him into the bed with me to nurse and he calmed down quickly. When he drifted back to sleep, I placed him back in the bassinet, but couldn’t resist the urge to keep my hand on his or my arm next to his body.
I just wanted to be close enough to touch him. During the next few days, I drifted off to sleep during nursing and it became easier to just keep him next to me all night, rather than taking him in and out of the bassinet.
During those first weeks and months, we woke frequently in the night to re-latch, re-situate and resettle, but the wakings were very brief — rarely more than two minutes. All three of us would cuddle together at night and in the mornings, stroking each other’s skin and admiring the features of whoever was still sleeping when we woke up.
Those moments were dreamy, and my husband and I began to cherish them. Over the years, our son has bounced in and out of our bed. There was a time he slept better in his room and a time when we added another baby to our bed — he felt left out and we wanted him to be included, so he was welcomed back into our room.
Now he and his little sister are used to snuggling up together at bedtime and they sleep so much better (and longer!) when they are laying next to each other. Each night when we lay down, we say prayers and exchange “I love yous” and hugs and kisses and I fall asleep with a full heart.
My husband and I love ending the day all together that way. Some may wonder if our marriage suffers because we don’t have hours alone in the evening. We still make time for each other and are thankfully on the same page about how we enjoy and celebrate the family we created together.
I know this is not the only arrangement that works for families. Some parents may not be able to get comfortable with a baby in the bed or a child in the room, and so co-sleeping (room sharing or bed-sharing) may not be the best arrangement for every family.
But I think most Americans think co-sleeping is absurd for cultural reasons rather than considering how it may actually benefit their families. Our culture tends to focus on creating independence from infancy. But other cultures recognize what science confirms: babies and mothers were designed to touch each other during the night.
According to research, babies respond to the touch, movements and smell of mothers neurologically throughout the night. Their body temperature, stress level and breathing all stabilize when they lay next to their mothers. And mothers are physiologically motivated to touch and sleep close to their babies.
One factor may be that sleeping in close proximity promotes breastfeeding. Mothers who co-sleep (whether bed sharing or room sharing) are more likely to breastfeed longer, likely because of the exhausting routine of fully waking up to go to another room, stay awake through a feeding, get baby settled and fall back asleep.
The process is so much quicker when a baby is close by and mothers are more likely to persist. Breastfeeding not only provides sustenance and immunity boosters to help babies thrive, but it also gives mothers a frequent dose of oxytocin and prolactin, which helps mothers feel calm and less stressed.
In general, frequent nursing and co-sleeping both promote bonding. Dr. James McKenna, an infant sleep expert, says babies who lay next to their mothers during sleep are happier and in turn, mothers are happier.
It is no secret that sleep, or lack thereof, plays a huge part in a mother’s happiness. The exhaustive state of most mothers is due to their babies waking up several times a night to nurse or be bottle-fed. Most of the time mothers spend awake feeding their babies isn’t just feeding them. It is also settling them back down to go back to sleep which can sometimes take hours if a child is more comfortable sleeping with his or her mother, and awakens each time they are placed in a cold and empty bassinet or crib. This endless exhaustion can lead to symptoms of sleep deprivation which include sadness, anger, rage, and lower cognitive processes. In new mothers, it can also play a part in postpartum depression.
Research shows that sleep can play a large part in a mother’s experience with postpartum depression. A study conducted in 2016 in Ardabil, Iran found that the rate of depression in mothers with poor sleep quality, as tested by using the Standard Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index questionnaire, were 3.34 times more likely to experience some level of postpartum depression, as tested by the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Questionnaire. The study showed that there is a clear association between sleep quality and postpartum depression. And although there are several other risk factors associated with postpartum depression including depression during pregnancy, anxiety during pregnancy, experiencing stressful life events during pregnancy, low levels of social support, and a previous history of depression, it seems as those risk factors co-factored with the general difficulties of new motherhood, including sleep deprivation, can make for a pretty exhausting and sad postpartum experience for new mothers.
Co-sleeping families tend to get more sleep because they spend less time waking up at night to feed their babies, and they don’t stay awake throughout the night trying to get their little ones to settle back down. Co-sleeping babies usually nurse for longer periods, too.
This was certainly true in our case. My first baby night nursed through 18 months old and weaned around 33 months. My second baby night-weaned around 25 months and is still nursing at 27 months. We have not experienced hours of crying in the night, nor hours of trying to get a little one to lay down alone. Having milk available throughout the night hours is a comfort to us all.
Like other dads, my husband sees the benefits of nursing on demand and how bonded and rested I am. We’ve both noticed that when we lay next to them, they get sleepy, almost regardless of the time of day. Even during nap time, if I sleep next to them, they will sleep longer than if I get up and leave them in the bed. Research even shows that daily naps for adults are beneficial in several ways so taking advantage of them while we can makes sense. Daytime naps can improve alertness and motor performance. “Everybody agrees that if you are sleep deprived, you can’t learn, perform or think very well,” says Jerome Siegel, PhD, director of the Center for Sleep Research at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dr. Sears talks about how to co-sleep safely and how it actually can reduce the risk of SIDS. He also cites research that shows children who bed shared become independent sooner and have less anxiety. A study conducted in 2004 found this to be true. Eighty-three mothers of preschoolers were questioned about their child’s sleep habits since infancy, and their current behavior in regards to autonomy. They found that children who began co-sleeping in infancy, compared to those who started co-sleeping after age one (reactive) or those who always slept alone (solitary), were more independent as preschool-aged children. “However, early co-sleeping children were more self-reliant (e.g. ability to dress oneself) and exhibited more social independence (e.g. make friends by oneself).” This may seem surprising, but it makes sense that children who feel bonded and secure in their relationship with the their parents gain confidence.
The time families can spend together is so limited, we see the night time hours as an opportunity to continue bonding rather than spending that time separately. Families who co-sleep can still make time for parents to be alone in different ways rather than just the night time hours. When our baby wakes up looking for milk or a little one stirs from a bad dream, they are instantly met with pats and words of comfort or milk. They may sleep more soundly knowing they are close to their caregivers, and I sleep better knowing their needs are met.
I know the day is coming that it will make more sense for them to move on from bed-sharing. In the meantime, we are soaking up these precious moments before, during and after sleep. We smell their heads and pull their warm bodies close. We stroke each other’s cheeks and pat each other’s backs.
And when my husband’s eye catches mine just before the last light goes out, we smile and both think, “These are the days.”