Co-sleeping as Nighttime Bonding - Page 2

Author // Pinky McKay, IBCLC

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Co-sleeping as Nighttime Bonding
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Attachment, the process of learning to love, is a behavioral system that operates 24 hours a day. It does not deactivate during sleep, where infants spend up to 60 percent of their time. As obstetrician Michel Odent observes, “It takes only the most elementary observation to see that a baby needs its mother even more during the night than in the daylight. In the dark, the baby’s predominant sense—sight—is at rest. Instead, the baby needs to use its sense of touch through skin-to-skin contact, and its sense of smell.”

According to Professor James McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, co-sleeping is a safe and even potentially life-saving option, as long as parents provide a safe sleeping environment (see sidebar). Professor McKenna has extensively studied mothers and babies both co-sleeping and sleeping separately and his research demonstrates what co-sleeping mothers will attest to: When mothers and babies sleep together, they tend to get into the same sleep cycle. The mothers, even in deep sleep, were aware of their babies’ positions and would move to avoid lying on them or impeding their breathing. Although the co-sleeping babies spent less time in deep sleep and aroused more frequently (though not necessarily waking completely), their mothers actually got more sleep than the mother-baby pairs sleeping in separate rooms.

As a researcher in SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), Professor McKenna explains that these small transient arousals may lessen a baby’s susceptibility to some forms of SIDS, which are thought to be caused by failure to arouse from deep sleep to re-establish breathing patterns. The babies in his studies who sleep with their mothers also tend to sleep on their backs or sides and less often on their tummies— another factor that could reduce the risk of SIDS. Professor McKenna advises, “From an evolutionary and biological perspective, proximity to parental sounds, smells, gases, heat and movement during the night is precisely what the human infant ‘expects,’ and in our push for infant independence, we are forgetting that an infant’s biology cannot change quite as quickly as cultural child-care patterns.”

For mothers who enjoy sharing sweet dreams with their babies, the research is affirming: Touch and proximity are essential elements of bonding; the hormonal status that enhances bonding is at its most effective during nighttime breastfeeding; continued breastfeeding maintains the release of hormones essential for mother-infant bonding; and breastfeeding is more likely to be successful for a longer duration when mothers and infants co-sleep.

If, despite the evidence, you are facing criticism (“You will never get him out of your bed!”), take heart: My children are no longer sleeping with me. However, now that they are of college age, according to research, it seems they could well be sleeping with somebody else!

Safe Co-sleeping

  • Do not sleep with your baby if you or your partner is under the influence of any substance, such as alcohol or medication (even if prescribed), that could induce a deeper sleep and reduce awareness of your baby.

  • Do not co-sleep if you or your partner is a smoker.

  • Sleep on a firm, flat surface (not a waterbed, couch or sofa).

  • Keep baby’s head uncovered and do not use padded blankets, to avoid overheating.

  • If you have long hair, tie it back, and consider that very large breasts or extreme obesity may reduce awareness of your baby’s position.

Pathways Issue 31 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #31.

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