“People who say they sleep like babies usually don’t have them.” Leo J. Burke
Issues of sleep are usually a top concern of expectant and new parents. No wonder. Parents can’t pick up a parenting magazine or book without reading somebody’s opinion about infant sleep. Sleep is always on the list of questions pediatricians ask of new parents about their baby. How is the baby sleeping? How many hours in a row? How long at night?
The topic of sleep covers many areas, including safety issues, napping, night sleep arrangement, normal sleep patterns in infants, children, and adults, breastfeeding, and much more. In this article I’ll narrow our focus to nighttime sleeping for infants.
Your infant’s capacity for attachment is established early on. She has an intense need for physical closeness, predictable comforting, and a sense of safety. Meeting these needs has a direct impact on her early brain development and helps her develop a sense of trust in later babyhood and toddlerhood, leading to a secure attachment to mom and dad.
I’m sorry to report to America: Global warming isn’t the only inconvenient truth. Infants are inconvenient for modern parents, especially at night. Rarely will a young infant sleep through the night. We parents want to sleep through the night, but they aren’t there yet. Because they aren’t biologically ready yet to meet our needs, we need to adjust our needs to meet theirs for a while. On the child-need v. parent-need scale, new babies are very high need and they don’t understand it when their needs aren’t met. But it’s only temporary. I promise. As Catholic parents we can call on God’s help in difficult moments. You cannot outgive your Heavenly Father.
So let’s just get down to it and ask ourselves how we can optimize their sleep environment to give those wee ones what they need in their first weeks of life!
Sleep Near Your Baby
My husband Philip and I have co-slept in some form with all four of our children. Our youngest daughter, Lydia, still sleeps in our bed at age 2. Our middle children now sleep together in one bed. Our teenager, who slept with us until age 5, happily sleeps alone. After the births of our youngest 3 children, my husband slept with the older children so he could get a good night’s sleep before going to work the next day and so he could night-parent the older children while I healed from my c-sections and focused on night-parenting our newborns. While these sleep choices are counter-cultural in the United States, they do not run counter to the Catholic culture of self-donative love. We can participate in the self-gift of Christ in the way we parent.
Yes, for me, co-sleeping is part of my faith. As a Catholic Christian I recognize what a privilege it is to use my body for the good of another, especially a tiny, helpless baby. My husband and I are witnesses and models for our older children in self-giving love and generosity. I am called to love my children tenderly: Allowing my small babies to sleep near me helps them feel safer, more secure, and it makes it easier for me to respond to their needs during the night.
In addition, Philip and I are confident that we have made the right choice for our infants’ physical and emotional development. Scientific literature shows us that the best nighttime sleep arrangement for optimizing attachment is some form of bedsharing or co-sleeping. Dr. James McKenna, a prominent sleep researcher at the University of Notre Dame, reviewed research in physiology, infant neurology, and human sleep, and he also conducts controlled experiments on mother-infant pairs in a sleep laboratory. He has discovered that co-sleeping moms and infants are extraordinarily in sync, responding to one another’s movements and sounds. He is unequivocal in his recommendation that baby’s sleep next to mom, either in the bed or right next to her on a separate surface, because this is the optimal sleep environment for infants for many reasons:
[I]rrepressible (ancient) neurologically-based infant responses to maternal smells, movements and touch altogether reduce infant crying while positively regulating infant breathing, body temperature, absorption of calories, stress hormone levels, immune status, and oxygenation. In short . . cosleeping (whether on the same surface or not) facilitates positive clinical changes including more infant sleep and seems to make, well, babies happy. In other words, unless practiced dangerously, sleeping next to mother is good for infants. The reason why it occurs is because… it is supposed to. James McKenna, Co-Sleeping and Biological Imperatives.
Baby and mama both sleep better and baby is fed when he needs to be fed. By sleeping with baby next to mom in bed or within arm’s reach in a side sleeper, mom can respond to baby’s cues very easily: She can soothe the baby when baby starts to stir so baby can settle back to sleep or mom can nurse baby very conveniently. Best of all, the baby’s breathing and body temperature become regulated in response to the mother’s physical proximity. For this reason, Dr. McKenna thinks co-sleeping can be safer than solitary sleep for an infant. It’s also perfectly normal.
Co-Sleeping Is Normal, Really.
I know many of our older relatives think our sleeping choices are bonkers. To be frank, Philip and I have not been very forthcoming about our reasons for co-sleeping because we knew it would seem odd to our relatives of the older generations. We sort of hide it, like we were criminals or deviants. We should make more of an effort to explain our reasons for co-sleeping, especially so because I believe strongly that our sleeping arrangements are healthier and actually more “normal” in terms of biology and psychology than those of the average middle-class Western household where the sleeping norm is to place babies and small children in separate beds in their own rooms.
Our sleep arrangements are actually similar to those of the rest of the world, especially in those cultures that value strong familial bonds and interdependence. The fact is, how and with whom we sleep is strongly influenced by custom and culture. The field of ethnopediatrics has demonstrated in several cross-cultural studies that sleeping with your baby is actually the norm if one considers worldwide practices. The most prominent sleeping pattern cross-culturally is mother with baby in one bed and father in another bed alone or with older children. Meredith Small, Our Babies Ourselves, 111. While babies sleep in a variety of containers and on differing sleep surfaces, in almost all cultures worldwide, babies sleep with an adult and older children sleep with an adult or other siblings. Small, 112.
Americans stand out as odd in our practice of isolating infants in sleep. Why is it so important to us that tiny infants be independent? They aren’t leaving for college for 18 years. Let them be who they are: babies in need of assurance and comfort. You can’t force independence and maturity on a small baby, but you can ignore them long enough so that they give up hope. These are the moments that require heroic love. I know you are tired sometimes and wish the baby would sleep for 8 hours, but the early months pass very quickly. By responding to a baby’s nighttime cues for food, comfort, and warmth, she will become confident that she’s safe and cherished. This phase will pass into a new one, and you’ll look back and be so glad you gave her what she needed for those few months.
Co-sleeping parents are frequently on the receiving end of a finger-waving warning about SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the sudden unexplained death of a child younger than one year old. While SIDS is not well-understood, these deaths are believed to be correlated to the immaturity of a baby’s heartbeat, breathing, and blood pressure during sleep. Margot Sunderland, The Science of Parenting, 73. Many people believe letting a baby sleep in bed with a parent (bed-sharing) increases the risk of SIDS, but the fact is, countries with the highest rates of bed-sharing experience the lowest rates of SIDS. Sunderland, 73.
Sleeping with your baby can be practiced safely. Here are a few important precautions:
- Never allow a baby’s head to be covered by a thick blanket or comforter.
- Don’t position baby in between two people. If both parents are sleeping in the bed, have mom sleep in the middle.
- Don’t sleep with baby in bed with other older children.
- Don’t bed-share with an infant if you or somebody else in your household smokes.
- Don’t bed-share if your vigilance is impaired by drugs, alcohol, or exhaustion.
- Don’t co-sleep with a baby on a waterbed, sofa, or a reclining chair.
- Premature infants shouldn’t bed-share.
If you’re at all concerned about SIDS, I highly recommend a co-sleeper, which will allow you to sleep next to your baby but with the baby on a separate sleeping surface. I had bassinets with my first 3 babies and they were fine, but I much preferred the awesome Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper I had for my youngest daughter Lydia. The co-sleeper could be placed right next to our bed so that although Lydia was on a separate sleep surface I felt like she was right next to me. With the bassinets I always had to get up and put my legs over the side of the bed to lift the babies out if I needed to nurse them. The co-sleeper was much more convenient. The side of the sleeper could be lowered so that the baby was easier to reach at night, but the side could be placed up higher during the day.
After a few weeks that co-sleeper sort of turned into a changing table and Lydia just slept in the adult bed with me, but I did like having the option in the early weeks to put her down to sleep in her own space.
Whether you choose to sleep with your baby in bed with you or right next to you on a separate sleep surface, there are gentle ways to encourage older babies to settle back to sleep when they aren’t waking to feed. Elizabeth Pantley’s book The No Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night is a full of helpful and practical advice. Pantley’s approach involves responding to the baby’s cues, but also helping the baby learn to fall back to sleep when she reaches her natural arousal states during the night.
Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-Sleeping by James McKenna
The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley
If you’re interested in ethnopediatrics or studies in culture & parenting I recommend:
Meredith Small’s Our Babies Ourselves (very readable) and the more challenging but worthwhile collection of scholarly essays Parents’ Cultural Belief Systems: Their Origins, Expressions, and Consequences (edited by Sarah Harkness and Charles Super). The latter is expensive but I found a copy on inter-library loan.
Sleeping infant photo credit: Vladimir Melnik (photos.com)