Babies and Sleep: The Benefits of Cosleeping

Babies and Sleep: The Benefits of Cosleeping

Babies and sleep: it can seem that the two are mutually exclusive. Recent Brisbane research has even suggested that many mothers who have been diagnosed as having post-natal depression are actually suffering extreme fatigue from waking to their babies at night.

This has puzzled me, knowing that almost all babies waken to feed during the night, and especially breastfed babies, because breastmilk is so easily and quickly digested. I have read research documenting the many times that mothers in other cultures feed their babies at night, apparently without distress or depression.

Night waking had been an issue for me with my first baby, and I had felt rather “sleep-deprived” in the early months. By the time my second was born, I had learned – mostly from experienced mothers – that most babies wake up, and I felt more relaxed about it.

I discovered that we all slept better in bed together, and that I felt less fatigued, even though Zoe breastfed 3 or 4 times nightly. I would wake as she stirred, and feed her before she cried; this saved my husband from being disturbed, and he was more available for the early morning shift.

Co-sleeping, or bed-sharing, also synchronised our cycles of deep and light sleep, so I was already in light sleep when Zoe awoke, and I didn’t have that panicked feeling at being woken from deep sleep. Even better, I didn’t have to get out of bed, and I often fell asleep after a few minutes with Zoe still on the breast.

My experiences are confirmed by the elegant research done by James McKenna, Professor of Anthropology at University of Notre Dame, Indiana, US and his colleagues, who invited 35 mother-baby pairs into a sleep research laboratory, and monitored overnight their sleep patterns as they slept together or in separate rooms. They found that, not only did co-sleeping pairs get into the same sleep cycles, but that babies who co-slept experienced more frequent “arousals”, triggered by the mother’s movements, and spent less time in deep sleep.

As a researcher in SIDS, Professor McKenna believes that these low-level arousals, which did not actually awaken either partner, give the baby practice in arousing itself. This may lessen a baby’s susceptibility to some forms of SIDS which are thought to be caused by failure to arouse from deep sleep to re-establish breathing patterns.

Professor McKenna speculates that millions of years of co-sleeping and night feeding have not developmentally prepared young babies to “sleep through” in a solitary bed, involving, as this does, long periods of deep sleep.

There are many other benefits of co-sleeping, such as keeping the baby warm, increased access to the breast (which ensures a good supply), less crying, and the practical observation that co-sleeping babies almost always sleep on their backs, which is a significant factor in reducing SIDS risk.

Videos taken during the study showed that co-sleeping mothers, even in deep sleep, seemed aware of their baby’s position, and moved when necessary to avoid over-laying. At no time in the study did co-sleeping mothers impede the breathing of their babies, who actually had higher average oxygen levels than solitary sleepers.

Although there is no direct evidence to prove Professor McKenna’s theories, some of the lowest rates of SIDS are found amongst cultures where co-sleeping is predominant.

Western studies indicate that co-sleeping does not increase SIDS risk unless co-sleeping parents smoke or use alcohol or drugs. Co-sleeping parents must ensure that their baby’s head does not become covered by bedding, that the baby cannot sink into an overly soft mattress (water beds are not recommended) and that the baby does not become entrapped or overheated.

Fathers, non-breastfeeding mothers and working parents may particularly appreciate the cosy intimacy that sleeping with a baby brings. I do not see co sleeping as a panacea for fatigue, but for many families, it is easier, more pleasurable and less tiring than our cultures usual sleeping arrangements.

Safe Co-Sleeping Facts

Written by Pinky McKay

‘Co-sleeping’ defines a range of sleeping styles – from sleeping with your baby all night, to taking your little one into your bed for an early morning breastfeed and snuggling together for a few extra zzzs. For some families, co-sleeping can mean embracing not only the baby, but a whole new concept in bedroom decor with baby’s cot butted against the parents bed and the nearest side down for easy access to comfort baby. This option may be preferable if one partner is extremely tired or anxious about bed-sharing. However, if you do this, make sure that neither the cot, nor your bed can roll and there are no gaps between the cot and your bed.

The bottom line is that many parents share sleep with their babies – according to a recent study at Durham University, 63 percent of parents often take their babies into bed with them. So, rather than ask, “is it safe to sleep with my baby?” we should be asking, “how can I sleep with my baby safely?”

Whatever your sleeping arrangements, it is important to provide a safe sleeping environment for your baby. If you choose to sleep with your baby, both parents should feel comfortable with the decision and accept equal responsibility for baby’s safety:

  • Do not sleep with your baby if you are under the influence of any substance such as alcohol or medication/drugs (prescription or otherwise i.e. antihistamines) that could induce a deeper sleep and reduce awareness of your baby (either partner).
  • Do not co-sleep if you are a smoker (either partner). The risk of SIDS is increased if the mother smokes during pregnancy or after the birth. There is also some evidence to suggest that a father smoking during his partner’s pregnancy increases the risk, and if both parents smoke the risk is doubled. In fact, it’s preferable not to let anyone smoke near your baby.
  • Sleep on a firm, flat surface (not a waterbed) and ensure the mattress tightly intersects the bed frame.
  • Don’t co-sleep on a couch or sofa, as babies can easily slip down into the crevice or face-first between cushions, or they may become wedged between the adult and the back of the couch.
  • Avoid overheating by keeping baby’s head uncovered and do not use doonas or electric blankets whilst co-sleeping. Baby will be kept warm by your own body heat, so avoid over dressing or over bundling baby – enjoy the delicious skin contact.
  • If you have long hair, tie it back, and consider that very large breasts or extreme obesity may reduce awareness of your baby’s position.
  • Avoid pungent hair sprays, deodorants, and perfumes. Not only will these camouflage the natural maternal smells that baby is used to and attracted to, but foreign odours may irritate and clog baby’s tiny nasal passages.
  • Cut off ties from your own nightwear that may pose a strangulation hazard to baby.
  • At first it is wise to position baby next to mother, rather than between mother and father, as fathers tend to sleep more deeply and may be less aware of the baby.
  • Take precautions to prevent baby from rolling out of bed, even though it is unlikely when baby is sleeping next to mother. According to paediatrician William Sears, ‘like heat-seeking missiles, babies automatically gravitate toward a warm body.’ Perhaps place the bed firmly against the wall, and fill cracks or empty spaces with a rolled up blanket, or use a guard-rail – mesh guard rails are safer than slatted ones.
  • To prevent baby becoming ‘stuck’ between the night table and bed if in the unlikely event that he does accidentally fall out of bed, make sure any furniture is pushed far away from the bed.
  • Don’t allow older siblings to sleep with a baby under nine months. Sleeping children do not have the same awareness of tiny babies as do parents, and too small or too crowded a bed space is an unsafe sleeping arrangement for a tiny baby.
  • Never leave a baby on an adult bed unattended

BellyBelly Members On Co-Sleeping

Giovanni says:

“My son is now 6 and my daughter 3. When we first began the opinion was not to co sleep (you know the drill, not socially acceptable). I would bring my son in the early hours for a little extra sleep and it just progressed from there. We loved it. When my daughter was born she came in with all of us almost straight away (we have a lovely cot practically unused!). In the last couple of months we have kicked our son out but still have a sleep over night on Saturdays and he loves it. We have a king size bed but it was starting to get a little cramped with 4 which prompted the move. Our girl is quite independent and so has her own bed that she sometimes uses for some or all of the night depending on her mood.

We have two confident lovely children who I believe benefited greatly from co sleeping. And we all have a very close relationship. Even though my husband and I loved the experience we still found it uncomfortable to tell others because it doesn’t seem to be socially acceptable. People look down on us and think we are spoiling our kids, but to me it is simply more natural to have my children so close to me.”

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Dr Sarah J Buckley CONTRIBUTOR

Sarah is a medical doctor, with an M.B Ch.B from University of Otago, New Zealand, equivalent to MB BS (Australia) and MD (US). She also holds a Diploma of Obstetrics (University of Auckland) and a Diploma of Family Planning (Family Planning Victoria). Visit her website at http://sarahbuckley.com/


  1. Thanks for a brilliant article. We have co-slept since birth and our son is nearly 1. Would you be able to add some tips and info on transitioning to all night in his own bed?
    Thanks 🙂

  2. my husband and I have co-slept with our daughter since day 1. She’s now 2 years and one month old. We both love having her with us and she in turn loves bed. I’ve never had any hassle putting her for a nap or to bed at night. We just mention bed and she runs and dives in. She’s the best sleeper, so well behaved, confident, outgoing and the very opposite of clingy! Can’t recommend co-sleeping highly enough

  3. My baby just turned 46. For the first 3 months of his life he slept with us on my side. When he woke hungry, he was given the breast, almost by rote. I felt rested and great in the mornings, as I didn’t have to actually get up during the night. t 3 months he started sleeping through the night and graduated to his own crib. I would recommend this to anyone to at least try.

  4. I would have to disagree with this article. Having an infant sleep in your bed with you and your significant other could definitely cause SIDS. What if you rolled over onto your infant? This seems much too risky to me. I think the ABC’s of sleeping are important: Alone Back Crib.

    1. Did you know formula increases the risk of SIDS? That’s why SIDS and Kids changed their safe sleeping guidelines. But you don’t see that promoted. No matter which way you sleep with your baby, there are SIDS risks. So the best thing to do is be aware of the safe sleeping guidelines for that method and actually do them. The few co-sleeping deaths have tended to be on unsafe sleeping surfaces — eg a sofa/couch where the baby got wedged between the parent and couch. Or, the parent was on medication or some other risk factor. See point 4 here: http://www.bellybelly.com.au/baby-sleep/baby-sleep-myths-4-major-myths-busted/.

      Also co-sleeping and bed sharing are different — co-sleeping can be next to you in a cosleeper/cot etc — in arms reach.

  5. No. A year before I became a Paediatrician a woman and her babe were all dressed ready for discharge. She lay back on the bed breast feeding her beautiful one day old, fell asleep, and awoke to a dead baby smothered at her breast. There is a reason SIDS recommendations are to be fully awake and out of bed to feed. A baby’s brain matures while it’s sleeping, so I’m not sure why you’d want the baby to have “low level arousals”. Mother’s make more breast milk when they sleep restfully. This is another example of extrapolating benefits to the child based on self – promotion of parental pleasure (a midnight cuddle under your quilt with the most amazing smelling creature) and parental convenience (not having to get out of bed and just having a cheeky feed while lying down).
    And yes breast feeding is protective against SIDS but formula doesn’t”cause” it. Malnutrition would. I tell my patients that formula is scientifically designed to be perfect but breast milk is magic. No need for guilt trips and pressure.
    Also fatigue and poor sleep are a symptom of depression not a cause of depression.
    I hope we never have to lay hands on your children except when we vaccinate them. I hope we never have to see you in our emergency departments except to reassure you on the great work you are doing with them

    1. After many years of studies with consistent findings that formula increases the risk of SIDS by 50%, SIDS and Kids have updated their 6 safe sleeping guidelines with, “breastfeed if you can”. Lots of studies published on this, it’s why the guidelines have changed! It’s been known for some time.

      http://www.bellybelly.com.au/breastfeeding/does-breastfeeding-reduce-the-risk-of-sids/

      Deaths can happen in a cot, bed or unsafe sleeping surfaces. But what we do know is there are many benefits of co-sleeping, which facilitates better breastfeeding, production of oxytocin etc. It’s all about being educated about safe sleeping practices, no matter if you put your baby in a cot or in your bed. You can also get into a car and drive safely but still have a bad outcome. Sadly, it’s life. It does not mean co-sleeping is a baby killer. In fact, it’s practiced all over the world and is the primary way to sleep in many cultures, like Vietnam which I recently visited for 6 weeks.

      Also, this is a really interesting study to read — showing the ingredients found in formula and the ingredients found in breastmilk. Worth knowing so you can start to see why breastmilk truly is important, and well worth educating women and men about:

      http://www.bellybelly.com.au/baby/ingredients-in-breast-milk-and-formula/

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