Since the dawn of time, babies have breastfed in bed with their mamas. Sleep researchers have discovered that breastfeeding women lie in a protective C-shape around their babies, their knees up and their arm around them. There isn’t really an exception to this position. It’s the way mothers are biologically programmed. We mummy lionesses automatically feed and protect our cubs — and our sleep at the same time. Mums I speak to tell me when their babies lie close to them, they sleep longer, more soundly, and feed times aren’t as exhausting when there’s no need to get up. Baby is brought into bed and fed in this restful position and put back in the bassinette/cot within arm’s reach.
When I have demonstrated the lying down to feed position to expectant mums, they marvel at the ingenuity of it. When I show new mums, they breathe a sigh of relief. ‘Am I really allowed to do that?’ they ask, incredulously, as they’ve heard that bringing baby into bed with them is a no-no. Others tell me they’ve been doing it for weeks and it’s the only way they can get the baby to settle, but have been too scared to admit it to their health nurse, or even to friends or family.
Yes, I have read the recent media reports saying co-sleeping is dangerous. I have also read fantastic research by world-renowned anthropologists and sleep researchers, James McKenna and Helen Ball, who say the complete opposite — that having baby in a safe (and I’ll detail those conditions in a sec) co-sleeping environment, or within sensory reach of the mother, is actually safer than a baby alone in a cot in another room. Recent SIDS recommendations have been revised to suggest having baby in the same room as the mother for the first 6–12 months of life.
Whether women choose to have babies in bed with them or not is a personal choice and needs to be based on their sleeping arrangements at home, but the reality is that about 40% of women sleep with their babies — yes, in the western world! This may be just for a few hours during the night or it may be all night. That means the message of safe co-sleeping just has to be shared. Tell women not to sleep with their children, and they will do it anyway. Try to rigorously enforce that and accidents — such as exhausted mothers trying to feed babies on the sofa, falling asleep and dropping baby in the folds of the couch — are bound to happen (as they did in the UK a few years ago when they put out a series of anti-co-sleeping ads). So that’s why we have to educate mums how to do it safely. Check out the safe co-sleeping brochure on the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s website for more info (below), but it’s stuff like no soft sleep surfaces, no doonas, no sleeping on couches, don’t let pets or siblings sleep next to babies, no swaddling or overdressing co-sleeping babies, and don’t let babies sleep in a bed with anyone who smokes or has consumed alcohol or drugs.
There are some great options around for mums who don’t feel comfortable with their baby sleeping in bed with them for longer than the time it takes to breastfeed. Side-car cots are a great one (like the Arms Reach Co-Sleeper now sold by mothersdirect.com.au), where mums can still feed lying down, then shuffle baby over to his own surface once asleep, or just have baby’s cot, cradle or bassinette nice and close to their own and gently place them in without too much disruption. Other mums feel more comfortable falling into a co-sleeping arrangement once babies are over 20 weeks can move around and can turn their own heads.
For more information on breastfeeding and co-sleeping, check out the Australian Breastfeeding Association website: