I will admit I was never a pro-sleep sharing parent. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Dr. William Sears — the king of attachment parenting — and his wife, Martha, opposed the practice. It wasn’t until their fourth child came along that they changed their tune. “Our first three babies were easy sleepers,” Dr. Sears writes on his website, askdrsears.com. “We felt no need or desire to have them share our bed. Besides, I was a new member of the medical profession whose party line was that sleeping with babies was weird and even dangerous.
“Then along came our fourth child, Hayden, born in 1978, whose birth changed our lives and our attitudes about sleep.”
Hayden did for the Sears family what my third child did for mine: turned my judgmental opinion on its side. Neither of my first two kids struggled to sleep, but my third woke up the second her head hit the bassinet. The second I laid her next to me, she nuzzled in and went to sleep.
I was exhausted and more worried I would fall asleep while nursing and drop her than anything happening to her snuggled safely next to me.
I didn’t do it for long, but it gained me some much-needed sleep in the early weeks with my daughter and changed my opinions on the practice altogether. Dr. Sears and his wife changed their opinions on sleep-sharing as well.
“Sharing sleep involves more than a decision about where your baby sleeps,” Dr. Sears writes. “It is a mindset, one in which parents are flexible enough to shift nighttime parenting styles as circumstances change.”
Dr. Sears cites 7 benefits of co-sleeping:
1. Babies sleep better
Babies who sleep-share typically go to sleep and stay asleep because they have the reassurance and comfort of mom with every wake-up. Instead of waking up and panicking, these babies wake up and are quickly soothed back to sleep by mom either stroking them or nursing them back to sleep.
2. Mothers sleep better
This is one I wouldn’t have guessed because I truly believed I would be nervous with my baby right next to me. Turns out it was the complete opposite. I slept great with the baby right by my side, waking up periodically, glancing at my daughter, and then going right back to sleep.
“Contrast co-sleeping with the crib and nursery scene,” writes Dr. Sears. “The separate sleeper awakens – alone and behind bars. He is out of touch. He first squirms and whimpers. Still out of touch. Separation anxiety sets in, the baby becomes scared, and the cry escalates into an all-out wail or plea for help. This piercing cry awakens even the most long-distance mother, who jumps up (sometimes out of the state of deep sleep, which is what leads to most nighttime exhaustion), and staggers reluctantly down the hall.
“By the time mother reaches the baby, baby is wide awake and upset, mother is wide awake and upset, and the comforting that follows becomes a reluctant duty rather than an automatic nurturant response.”
When mom and baby are sleeping together, nursing or comforting takes place without either party fully waking up, resulting in more quality sleep.
3. Breastfeeding is easier
This ability of the mother to wake just before baby and then nurse him or her back to sleep makes breastfeeding so much easier. Not only is there easy access, but both parties are also more relaxed.
“Mothers who experience daytime breastfeeding difficulties report that breastfeeding becomes easier when they sleep next to their babies at night and lie down with baby and nap nurse during the day,” writes Dr. Sears. “We believe baby senses that mother is more relaxed, and her milk-producing hormones work better when she is relaxed or sleeping.”
4. It’s contemporary parenting
So many mothers cope with a hectic work-life balance that involves running around from place to place. The ability to nuzzle with a little baby at the end of the night can help those mothers wind down after a crazy day.
“As a nighttime perk, the relaxing hormones that are produced in response to baby nursing relax a mother and help her wind down from the tension of a busy day’s work,” writes Dr. Sears.
5. Babies thrive better
Dr. Sears has observed parents and babies for more than 30 years and, in his experience, babies who co-sleep thrive better than those who don’t.
“‘Thriving’ means not only getting bigger, but also growing to your full potential, emotionally, physically, and intellectually,” he writes. “Perhaps it’s the extra touch that stimulates development, or perhaps the extra feedings (yes, co-sleeping infants breastfeed more often than solo sleepers).”
6. Parents and infants become more connected
From his own experience, Dr. Sears has observed that a common thread for kids who turn out well is that they shared a bed with mom.
7. Reduces the risk of SIDS
“New research is showing what parents the world over have long suspected: infants who sleep safely nestled next to parents are less likely to succumb to the tragedy of SIDS,” writes Dr. Sears.
The idea is that the mother acts as a pacemaker of sorts for the baby, helping the rhythm of baby’s breathing with her own breathing. The ability to sense if baby stops breathing and wake at a moment’s notice also contributes to the positive impact of co-sleeping on SIDS.
Of course, that isn’t the only reason to co-sleep.
“Co-sleeping does not always work and some parents simply do not want to sleep with their baby,” writes Dr. Sears. “Co-sleeping is an optional attachment tool. You are not bad parents if you don’t sleep with your baby. Try it. If it’s working and you enjoy it, continue. If not, try other sleeping arrangements.”