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OUR BABIES, OURSELVES PART 3: Co-Sleeping

by Sarah on January 26th, 2011

Until I fell pregnant, and started looking into and reading about all-things-baby, I had never considered anything other than my baby sleeping in a cot in its own room. That’s how I slept when I was a baby, and that’s how every other baby in my little world slept. It turns out that my little world is more little than I thought. White,Western,Urban, South Africa, together with the other Western cultures, only make up roughly 20% of the world’s population. As for the other 80% (and a small portion of the 20%), they all sleep with their babies in their beds, like humans have done for over a million years.

I, like so many others, thought that the main bedroom was for the husband and wife only. A place of privacy. I thought babies who slept with their parents would get crushed. And that it was only something that poor people did. How ignorant.

Through reading Our Babies, Ourselves, I’ve learned a lot more about sleeping with a baby and I’d like to share this with you. Below are quotes taken directly from the book, and my comments are in italics:

  • “For most of human history, babies and children slept with their mothers, or perhaps with both parents… It wasn’t until two hundred years ago that a few cultures began to construct dwellings with more than one room…” (p.111)
  • “In almost all cultures around the globe today, babies sleep with an adult and children sleep with parents or other siblings… The United States (and White South Africa, it seems) consistently stands out as the only society in which babies are routinely placed in their own beds and in their own rooms”. (p.112)
  • “…the !Kung San think nothing of waking up in the middle of the night and spending a few hours around the campfire talking. There is no insomnia in their culture because no one is expected to sleep through the night. In fact, cross-cultural sleep research has shown that night waking is actually much less frequent in Western cultures than others. And yet Western parents view those bouts of alertness a baby may have during the night as much more problematic than parents in societies where babies’ sleep is much lighter.” (p. 117). Sounds like our expectations are completely unrealistic!
  • “Unlike most child-care experts (like most Western Doctors), ethnopediatricians find that the usually recommended solitary sleep is exactly the opposite of what is the naturally evolved sleep situation for babies, and thus not what the baby really needs.” (p.121)
  • “Most people believe it is possible to roll over and squish a baby or suffocate it under a mound of blankets. But as infant sleep researcher Mckenna notes, babies are born with strong survival reflexes, and they will kick and scream before they let anything clog their airways…The myth of overlaying persists because in many Western cultures there are also social, emotional and political reasons to keep babies out of the parental bed” (p.122). (And it is these cultural reasons that seem to plague a lot of us – me included!)
  • “The cultural pressure to make the baby sleep alone is so strong in America that even when parents do sleep with their babies, they are reluctant to admit it, as if they were committing a crime…most parents in America (and White South Africans) believe  that co-sleeping promotes emotional dependence, and… dependence is seen as negative.” (p.124)
  • “When sleeping together, mothers and babies are extraordinarily in sync… they are physiologically entwined; the movements and breathing of one partner, mother or baby, affect the other”. (p.128) Isn’t that beautiful?
  • “When sleeping with its mother, a baby reacts to her movements and goes through any number of changes in sleep stages, far more than when the infant sleeps alone, practicing the repeated hop from one kind of breathing to another. Left alone, babies must steer through the night sleep with little training, and no external stimuli or cues”. (p. 130)
  • “Since babies are born so neurologically unfinished, it makes sense that the external environment, even during sleep, would be so helpful in their “learning” how to sleep safely through the night.” (p.128) This is important because all babies experience apneas (pauses in breathing) and so it is through sleeping with their mother that they can learn how to breathe properly.
  • “Most co-sleeping pairs spend the entire night facing each other..the adult women breathe out a hazardous amount of carbon dioxide at close range, but an atmosphere of CO2 in the face might also be beneficial for infants because it changes the immediate atmospheric environment for the baby and triggers the brain to breathe”. (p.129) Amazing! There is so much going on that we are unaware of.
  • “No one can miss the fact that co-sleeping results in more attention by the mothers…exhibiting five times the protective behaviours towards their babies. They repeatedly kissed, touched, and repositioned the baby. They readjusted blankets and comforted the baby when it fretted…sometimes these mothers, as the polygraph showed, were not even conscious.” (p.129)
  • “… the attachment seen between mother and infant so clearly seen in the physiological realm is presumably echoed in the psychological” (p.131)
  • “…it is no coincidence that management of breathing ability comes developmentally at three to four months of age – just at the same period when babies are most vulnerable to SIDS .” (p.131)
  • “Although the labatorary data may be new, the facts have been around for a long time – almost all human infants for the past million or so years have slept in contact with an adult. And even today, in most places in the world, infants spend their first year co-sleeping.” (p. 136)
  • “What babies need from parents is to be part of that interactive parent-baby system that evolved for good evolutionary reasons, and which is a biological necessity even today.” (p. 137)

So, there you go, hopefully many reasons to help with your decision. The truth be told, I’m really struggling with the whole sleep thing myself. Reading this book has highlighted how tied I am to my culture, and to what people think of me (not a good thing!). Lily slept in our bed until just over three months, and then moved to a cot in our room. Only when she’s really niggly or battles going back to sleep have I put her in our bed. My fears of emotional dependency, and my fears of what other parents, my family and my friends would think of me, if she were to sleep in our bed permanently, seem to be too great. It’s something that has been highlighted for me as a Mom, and something that I know I need to work on. I hope that you other Natural Mamas out there are able to be stronger in your beliefs…