Today’s parents have it a lot tougher than previous generations of parents did. Of course, we do have all the latest baby gear, developmental toys and assorted paraphernalia, but there has never been so much pressure on parents to do the ‘right’ thing for their baby. Unfortunately, when it comes to parenting, there is hardly a single right way to do anything!! And along with breast feeding or baby iPads, a hot topic of contention is the discussion on the pros and cons of co-sleeping.
What is Co-Sleeping?
Co-sleeping refers to sleeping next to another person. To be more specific, co-sleeping actually refers to sensory proximity rather than physical proximity, where one person can see, hear, touch or smell the other person.
Co-sleeping actually covers a wide range of sleeping arrangements, some of which are described below:
1. Bed Sharing – This is where the baby actually sleeps with his parents on their bed
2. Room Sharing – Here the baby sleeps in his crib which is placed in his parents’ room
3. Attachment Bed – This is where a small crib-like structure is attached to the parent’s bed, so that the baby is at the same level as his mother
Co-Sleeping across the World
Co-sleeping is hardly a new concept; it’s been practiced by several communities across the world, particularly in Asian, African and South American countries. Any form of co-sleeping may be practiced in these places – while many families sleep together on a large bed, in some countries babies are placed in a cloth swing that is either suspended from the ceiling or tied at two ends like a hammock, while the mother sleeps close by.
Some experts think that families at a higher socio-economic level don’t practice co-sleeping simply because they have bigger homes with extra rooms to spare for the baby. However, studies show that this is hardly a factor, and co-sleeping has a much more cultural significance rather than economic considerations. It is partly this adherence to traditional norms that seems to be the topic of discussion when it comes to co-sleeping. To make sense of this controversy, let’s take a better look at the pros and cons of co-sleeping.
Pros of Co-Sleeping
1. Promotes Breastfeeding
An obvious advantage of sleeping with your baby is the ease and convenience of breastfeeding, particularly at night. There is no need to get up and walk to another room in the dark. Many babies reach for the breast themselves and feed without even waking the mother! Being together at night ensures that no feed is missed and the baby is well nourished.
2. Better Sleep for Baby
Babies who sleep with their mothers are found to sleep better. Coming out from the close confines of the womb and made to sleep alone in another room can be traumatic for newborns and being able to touch, see and smell their mother close by helps to soothe them. Babies who awake during the night tend to resettle faster when their mother is right next to them. They are also less prone to anxiety and seem more well adjusted during the day.
3. Better Sleep for Mother
Mothers also sleep better when their babies are right next to them. Many studies have shown that a mother and baby who sleep together tend to sync their breathing patterns and this helps to regulate both of their sleep cycles. Due to this, mothers who co-sleep wake up naturally just before feeding time, and don’t feel groggy as a result.
4. Better Awareness
When a mother sleeps next to her baby, she is aware of her baby’s movements, at least on a subconscious level. This way, she is quickly alerted when something abnormal takes place, like if her baby is having breathing pauses or a high temperature. She can also change the baby or cover him with a blanket if any of these factors are causing him discomfort, before they actually wake the baby.
5. Family Bonding
After spending all day busy in work and other commitments, going to bed together is the perfect opportunity for the entire family to have some fun and bond with each other. This is especially important for Dads, who don’t get to see their babies much during the day and don’t have the benefit of breastfeeding.
6. Reduced Risk of Postpartum Depression
Moms are at a much reduced risk of postpartum depression when they are well rested, which is more likely to happen with co-sleeping Moms. Such mothers generally report lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. They are happier with their babies and the whole family reaps its benefits.
Cons of Co-Sleeping
1. Disturbed Sleep
This may sound contrary to what was said earlier, but co-sleeping doesn’t work the same way for everyone. Some infants find sleeping among their parents too stimulating and feel more comfortable in a womb-like closed crib. Some mothers also can’t seem to rest for fear of rolling over their babies and wake up in the morning feeling drowsy and irritable. If other children also share the family bed, the baby crying at night or soiled/wet bed sheets can wake the entire family and affect their sleep too.
2. Risk of Suffocation and SIDS
There have been cases of babies dying from suffocation during co-sleeping, and the risk increases of either or both parents are obese, intoxicated, heavy sleepers or are taking drugs that can cause drowsiness. The chances of SIDS increase if either or both parents are smokers or spend the entire day with smokers. If the entire family sleeps together, other small children may accidentally smother the newborn, and large pillows and quilts pose an additional threat.
3. Pacifier Dependency
While breastfeeding convenience is an advantage of co-sleeping, it becomes a problem when the baby starts to use the breast as a pacifier instead. This is more likely in older babies, especially when they don’t need as many night feeds as before. This kind of dependency can be very difficult to wean off later, and can also result in nursing caries (a kind of tooth decay).
4. Risk of Infection
When the baby sleeps in such close proximity with other family members, he is vulnerable to any infection that the others might have, especially skin infections that may be contagious. This is particularly true if other children also share the bed, as they can pick up all kinds of bugs from school or the playground. The problem gets worse with pets in the house, who may shed all over the furniture.
5. Difficulty to Move to Crib
Babies who co-sleep till older may have more trouble shifting to a larger bed later. They tend to show more separation anxiety and can result in several sleepless and restless nights for parent and child. Babies who learn to self soothe and sleep on their own early don’t have trouble adapting to a bigger bed.
6. Intimacy Issues
Co-sleeping has its advantages for mother and baby, but it can put a strain on marital relations. In some cases, the father finds that he has no space and moves to another room or the sofa, leaving the mother to fend for herself. This can create tension within the couple, at a time when complete cooperation is necessary. Parents are also less likely to get intimate when there is an infant on the bed with them, creating further stress.
Deciding what’s Right for your Family
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong – it all depends on what works for your family best! Every baby is different, and every family’s circumstances are different, so you’ll have to make a choice that’s tailor-made for you. Many families use a mix and match system, or a progression method, where the baby starts out on the parents’ bed till around six months. When his night feeds have settled into a routine and his sleep cycles are regular, he is shifted to a crib in the parents’ room. Later, he is moved to his own room, depending upon his readiness and ability to self soothe. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so go ahead and see what works for you!