Last revised: 02/02/2019
It’s with the birth of my twins that I deeply understood there are some practices in our Western culture not very well adapted to our babies’ biology.
In particular, the need for presence of my newborn babies, which subsided when held close, worn, and placed skin-to-skin, did not seem compatible with the way we are generally inclined to isolate them in another room or keep them away from us while we are sleeping.
With time and further information on the subject, we went from what the culture dictated to more compatible habits for our young children’s biology, which can be grouped under the name of attachment parenting.
Particularly in regard to sleep.
My children went from sleeping in our room, which is expected in our culture, to their own room at their first year. But they were back in our own family bed until they were 5 years old, at their delight, and ours after adaptation, finally.
To the surprise of many, but you may understand reading the following, our newborn baby will sleep in the family bed until she is ready to sleep on her own in her own room.
It has to do with a surprising fact.
Did you know that our Western culture is the only culture in the world that isolates a newborn in a separate room?
Other cultures practice some form or another of co-sleeping, such as bed sharing or co-sharing the bedroom on a bed set for the mother and the child (and often the father).
We even observe, in those who practice co-sleeping as bed sharing combined with breastfeeding, the lowest rates of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Ethnopediatrics is a science developed by anthropologists and pediatricians to understand how our cultures could incorporate our children’s biological needs. Dr. Meredith F. Small and James J. McKenna recount several arguments in favor of cosleeping and how to do it safely.
Why practice cosleeping
Contrary to what is popularly thought in our Western culture, sharing our room or bed with our baby is more protective for him.
An isolated and wrapped baby can be too cold or hot, and not be able to get away from his sheets, or not be able to have his needs heard. It is to be noted that it is generally not with bad intentions that our culture uses the separate room. This would be based on a wrong belief, without any real scientific support to it, to promote the child’s independence and security, and help them as well as parents to sleep better.
In light of the studies, one can understand why it would be better now to return to a more natural way to practice cosleeping with infants.
The human baby is born neurologically underdeveloped compared to other animal species, to facilitate the passage of the head, quite big, in the mother’s pelvis at birth. Therefore, he needs to fill this gap by sleep training.
It was discovered that the young baby who cosleeps regulates his breathing, heart rate, and temperature to match the ones of his parents. He is therefore less likely to find himself in a problematic situation in his first months, if done safely. He also sleeps less deeply, which impedes sleep apnea common in babies, and follows the sleep rhythms of his parents.
If there is a problem, like being trapped, a close parent can easily realize it and help. The baby does not have to scream (so wake up for good as well as all of the household) to have his needs met. His temperature can be well controlled by the constant attention of the parent.
Cosleeping facilitates attachment so important in the early years of life, which is the basis of self-confidence and positive social relationships. It also promotes safety; the baby is biologically motivated to be close to her parents to be protected (formerly of predators, for example), and the parents are reassured that the baby is safe.
Cosleeping also facilitates breastfeeding by proximity, facilitating greater and longer duration per session and time. It creates a better milk supply, added protection against certain cancers, and faster weight loss in nursing mothers.
It facilitates the good sleep of those in the relationship, because the needs are met in a quiet state, which reduces stress and promotes going back to sleep.
Most of the benefits of cosleeping are also shared by bottle-fed babies.
How to safely practice cosleeping
Just as there are good sleeping practices in a baby cot, there are good habits to practice cosleeping, which are not emphasized in our culture.
First, ethnopediatrics researchers believe that every newborn should be in a room with a parent. This can be done by putting the baby bed or bassinet next to a parent, or by sharing the family bed. Triplets or twins can also sleep together, with a good space between them.
But it’s not all babies who should share the family bed.
It should be done only if your arrangements meet these safe conditions:
- The shared bed should ideally be a firm mattress on the ground, away from walls and supplies (such as the head of the bed) that can “trap” the baby. The bed must not have large blankets, but simple cotton sheets and rigid foam pillows, to avoid the risk of suffocating the baby. Do not attend to practice cosleeping on another arrangement, such as a couch.
- The room temperature should not be too hot. Do not dress the baby too warmly; if you are comfortable, your baby probably is.
- Clothing must not have strings, and long hair must be tied to prevent strangulation.
- Avoid with a premature baby or multiple babies.
- No older child or animal should be able to share or could climb at night to share the bed.
- No parent should be smokers, consuming alcohol, medication, drugs, any other substance that causes fatigue or alteration of consciousness, nor be overly tired, or be significantly overweight. Parents must be responsible and willing to know at all times where the baby is, and the baby must be accompanied at all times on the bed.
- The baby should be breastfed exclusively, as a breastfeeding mother and her breastfed baby are more alert and in symbiosis during sleep.
- The baby should sleep on a firm surface, on the back (which promotes adequate, light sleep). His head should be clear of sheets, stuffed animals and pillows.
Otherwise, for example if the baby is bottle-fed, or the parent is exhausted, cosleeping in the same room but with the baby in a separated bed should be practiced.
Cosleeping, done well, is good for all
Co-sleeping is a safe practice if done carefully, popular around the world and recommended by experts who care about the wellbeing of families.
So, bring the bed of your young child in your room or share your own bed!
Hopefully these good cosleeping practices will revolutionize our relationships and happiness in our Western families, and make children and parents thrive.
- Sleeping With Your Baby, James McKenna
- Our Babies, Ourselves, Meredith Small
- The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff
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