Safe co-sleeping: Everything you need to know about co-sleeping with your baby

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  • Co-sleeping always seems to be a topic of debate for parents, and with convincing arguments both for and against, it's a confusing choice for parents.

    Here we explain exactly what co-sleeping is, the pros and cons and whether it is right for you and your baby.

    What is co-sleeping?

    Co-sleeping is the practice of parents and children sleeping in the same bed. Approximately 90% of the world’s population does it, with many saying that co-sleeping is a natural and a comforting way of getting your baby to sleep, but others believe that co-sleeping is bad.

    Melanie Every of The Royal College of Midwives says, ‘For all sorts of reasons (cultural, historical, comfort in the middle of the night, particularly when breastfeeding) women will take their babies into bed with them.

    ‘The sensible approach is to advise mums of the safest way and explain which conditions really are a total no-go.’

    What are the pros of co-sleeping?

    Author of The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland says: ‘When human babies are separated from their mum’s body, they cry. If they don’t get a response from her, they’ll be quiet. But this reaction is a survival technique, which is accompanied by fluctuations in breathing, temperature and heart rate.

    Margot notes that the immune system is also lowered and the digestive tract doesn’t work properly. ‘As soon as we put the baby back in skin-to-skin contact with the mother, all those things stabilise and wonderful feel-good chemicals are activated.

    ‘I’m trying to tell parents that they can make up their own minds about co-sleeping. They have a right to know what they’re doing to a child’s brain, that they’re either activating feel-good or stress chemicals.’

    Margot believes that co-sleeping should take place from birth as long as all the safety measures are followed properly. ‘Some babies may require less co-sleeping, and others may need more, depending on their temperament and sensitivity.

    ‘In the first five years of life, the separation distress system is very sensitive. But as children develop, some may feel secure aged 3, while others can still be in a state of alarm and screaming in distress at that age. This isn’t attention seeking; we know this is activating the pain system and separation distress alarm.

    ‘If we keep alarming the baby, the brain becomes over-sensitive and hard-wired and this is linked to stress, anxiety and depression.’

    Margot says that the emotional benefits for the mum mean the physical contact will activate oxytocin and opioids in her body and produce more breast milk. ‘She doesn’t have to get up every time her baby screams in the middle of the night; the baby reaches out and says, “Mum’s next to me. Phew, I’m safe.” The mother breastfeeds and the sleep cycle isn’t interrupted.

    ‘We do need to think about logistics such as private space and a couple’s sex life. It’s a good idea to set up a romantic place to make love, but not in the bed. And if you don’t like your child kicking next to you, buy a king-size bed. You wouldn’t deprive children of nourishing fruit and veg, so why deprive them of this natural feel-good activating sleep?’

    Margot has been a child psychotherapist for 20 years, as well as Director of Education and Training at London’s Centre for Child Mental Health and the author of several books on child mental health. Along with many others, she believes that putting a baby in bed with their parents from birth will help them grow into a calm, healthy adult. She says that separation from the parents is harmful, increasing stress hormones such as cortisol, which could cause depression later on.

    Read more: Cot bed safety: The hidden dangers on your baby’s cot bed

    What are the cons of co-sleeping?

    Maternity nurse Rachel Waddilove, author of The Baby Book, says: ‘Nothing makes me happier than seeing a baby well-fed, settled and tucked up for a deep sleep. They thrive on it. I’m not a scientist; I’m a practical girl coming from a completely different angle, mainly with the aim of helping parents.

    ‘There are a lot of downsides to co-sleeping. A baby will suckle on and off the breast all night, which is great for them when they’re tiny, but at some stage you’ve got to stop that. If you co-sleep up to 2, 3 or 4 years of age, a child will have a huge emotional anxiety about being taken away from his parents. And how would your relationship with your partner survive? It’s so important for couples to have time together.

    Rachel warns that there’s also a risk of smothering the baby or the baby over-heating. ‘If mums tell me they want to co-sleep, I explain the risks, and they don’t do it. These days, they say you should have the baby in your bedroom for the first year, but I think that’s crazy. All my clients put their little ones in their own room in the first month. There’s so much fear instilled in parents these days, but you just have to trust a bit and let life go on.

    ‘Experience tells me that babies sleep well when they’re swaddled, put in their cots and tucked up nice and tight with a full tummy. If you try for routine and four-hourly feeds and your baby’s a good size, by the time he’s a month old you won’t need to keep getting up in the night.

    ‘When a baby won’t sleep, I also use “shout it out” and controlled crying (allowing the baby to cry for a short while before going to him), which do work. I understand that a parent’s instinct is to immediately pick the baby up. But when I’m living with a family, I say, “Don’t jump up straight away; wait and see what happens.” You aren’t doing any long-term damage; they’ll never remember it the next day and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. In fact, I’d say it takes a better parent to hold back a bit.’

    Rachel’s book, The Baby Book, has proven so popular that it sold out of its first print run. The eldest of six siblings, mum to three, grandmother of six and a maternity nurse since the 1960s, her CV has references from contented parents and babies, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin and their daughter, Apple. She believes that a baby should be put in their own cot, ideally in their own room, and a routine should be formed two weeks after birth.

    What about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)?

    For a while it’s been known that co-sleeping can lead to many of the conditions linked with SIDS, such as over-heating, suffocation from duvets and pillows, and being close to parents who drink and smoke.

    But there are also strong arguments that say that co-sleeping improves the bond between parents and baby and makes breastfeeding easier.

    What about using a co sleeping cot?

    There are a number of co sleeping cots on the market, which attach to your existing bed, enabling you sleep side-by-side with the baby. However, some current advice on what are also called bed nests or pods seems to caution against their use. As an example the Lullaby Trust – which raises awareness of SIDS – does not recommend ‘that babies sleep on soft surfaces such as pods or nests’ and instead if parents do choose to co-sleep ‘the safest place is a clear space on a firm flat mattress the same as we would advise with a cot’.

    It is up to you whether you think co-sleeping is right for you, and your health visitor or GP is the best person to talk to when it comes to weighing up the factors involved.