Co-sleeping, specifically bedsharing, has long been a controversial, and emotive subject. The HSE advise against it, saying it can be dangerous as it can increase your baby's risk of suffocation. They can slip under the bed covers, roll under an adult, get trapped between the bed and the wall or fall out of the bed. They advise that a separate cot is safest, preferably in the same room as their parent/mother.
However, a growing body of research, such as this report from the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, highlights the relationship between continued breastfeeding when an infant sleeps with their mother, and suggests a need for further study and more individualized and non-judgmental advice for parents in this area.
The reality is, for many mums, co-sleeping holds a strong appeal. Anne-Louise Foley, a mother of two, discusses her experience and looks at the latest expert advice to find out more.
For 740 nights and counting, I have been woken up by a small human who, approximately three times a night – sometimes more – sidles over to have suck on me so he can go back to sleep. Sometimes he sprawls out sideways like a squirrel monkey, leaving me clinging on to the edge of the bed, or kicks me in the ribs when he's having a dream.
We're both so used to this night-time dance, in which we find each other in the dark without fully waking up, my two-year-old like a heat seeking missile, eventually settling again in the crook of my arm for another couple of sleep cycles.
These night-time encounters – AKA bed sharing, co-sleeping, or most aptly described as 'breast-sleeping' – are my attempt to gather up some bits of sleep in the only way I know how. The path of least resistance, I suppose you could call it.
Safety is key
Our nocturnal adventures began on 17 February 2019, when baby Eric was born. I created a little nest in our hospital bed, got into a good side-lying breastfeeding position, and we managed to get a small bit of sleep despite the general coming and goings in the ward, and intermittent crying of five other babies.
I felt sheepish initially, expecting to be told to use the plastic cot beside the bed, but instead, got some encouraging comments from some of the midwives who checked in on us. "Ah, you know what you're doing don’t you?" one said smiling, as she peeped through the curtain.
And I did. I knew from experience with my first baby (now nearly five and a great sleeper) that co-sleeping, done safely, means minimal crying and maximum sleep for us both.
Done safely is the key thing here. For a long time, it was off the table. Or at least no one talked about it. But increasingly, with research indicating that the benefits can outweigh the risks, the practice is becoming more acceptable.
It's known to promote the continuation of breastfeeding and results in more sleep for all concerned, described by Professor James McKenna, an extensive researcher in this field, as "humankind’s oldest and most successful sleep and eating arrangement". But this is only the case when it is practiced and any potential hazards are removed.
Best practice guidelines advise that it should only be done if mother is breast-feeding and non-smoking, and that baby is full term and is not swaddled or over-heated - see advice here. A co-sleeper cot that attaches to side of bed can work well for many families, as another option to keep infants within arms reach.
In his book Kiss Me, paediatrician Carlos Gonzalez says: "For animals, sleep is a perilous activity. Our genes compel us to stay awake when we feel threatened and allow ourselves to drift into sleep when we feel secure." People have slept with their babies since the beginning of time and still do, in many countries and cultures.
It is only still considered alternative and a bit hippy in our Western society, where 1950s ideas endure of being able to train babies to behave in ways we would like, i.e. to sleep for 12 hours straight in a cot in their own room. But increasingly, the attachment parenting movement – a return to our instinctive, intuitive behaviours –has been gaining popularity.
According to the University of Notre Dame’s Mother and Baby Sleep project: "Sleeping close to your infant is not simply a nice social idea but, for the infant, it represents a form of expected physiological regulation and support. Indeed, infants require this contact and proximity especially because of nutritional needs (breastfeeding) but also because of the immaturity of their thermo-regulatory, immune and cardio-respiratory systems, in addition to their dependence on touch, all systems closely tied together to promote efficient functioning of all of the infant's immature organs and the central nervous system in general."
When contacted on the subject, the HSE said that advice for parents is updated from time to time in line with new evidence and guidelines. They also suggested visiting mychild.ie, part of HSE.ie, as it includes information about the risks of co-sleeping and the situations where it is very dangerous.
Nocturnal waking is biologically normal and it takes time – years often – for young children to get the hang of sleeping. Child expert and author Sarah Ockwell Smith points out that it can take until children are two, and beyond, to 'sleep through’ like adults do.
This is due to their underdeveloped neocortex – meaning they don’t yet possess the skill of emotional regulation, the elusive concept of self-soothing, and that if society understood better that this is normal, and not a problem to be fixed, or something that should be happening, it would result in less stress for all concerned.
Gonzalez says that these 'shoulds' have resulted in much unnecessary shame, doubt, and guilt for mothers around behaviours that once came instinctively. I know when I co-slept with my first baby I felt like I was doing something wrong.
Do what works for you
That cliché about doing what works for you and your family is so true. Co-sleeping and bedsharing is not for everyone (some nights I'm not even sure if it’s for me).
The nights can be long and lonely at times for us co-sleeping mammies, as we turn over again, with a dead arm or a stiff neck, and avoid checking the time. I come downstairs the next morning feeling "touched out" and bleary-eyed from what feels like – and probably was – being woken every hour. I resolve I’m going to nightwean and be done with it.
But then, a better night follows. So, we crack on - aided by coffee. I’ve adjusted to the broken sleep and can function pretty well, it turns out (apart from when I put the car key in the fridge). I take the path of pragmatism because I haven’t the energy to change things or stage an intervention that would involve any tears, and because, being honest, sometimes I quite like the little snuggles.
And I’ve realised that a difficult night usually means something exciting was happening in Eric’s little developing brain, and suddenly he’s doing something or saying something new the next day. Or he’s got a new tooth. Facebook groups with likeminded folks and some great Instagram profiles, such as Coffee and Co-sleeping or Lyndsay Hookway, help to normalise it all, with practical information and words of encouragement.
Everyone says the nights are long, but the years are short. And it’s true. In the coming months, now he’s old enough to understand that the all-night drive through diner needs to shut up shop for a while, I’ll move Eric in with his big brother, and normal service in my world will resume – being awoken three times a night instead by the snores of an adult male.
- Written by Anne-Louise Foley
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.