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Attachment Parenting

The Family Bed: A beginner's guide
by Gaye E. McKinnon

Before Thomas was born, we had decorated his nursery with beautiful lemon paint, new curtains, "forever friends" bear stickers, the bassinet that I used to sleep in as a baby and lots of stuffed toys. I must admit that, whilst we were planning to have his bassinet in our room for the first few months (!), we hadn't even considered sleeping with him in our bed. It's not that we had any objections or anything - we simply hadn't even thought of it as an option. As far as we knew, babies slept in cots, end of story.

I thank God that Thomas arrived a high-needs baby, because if he hadn't, we might not have discovered the wonderful experience of the family bed. I now firmly believe in it to the extent that I wouldn't even try to sleep any future babies on their own! Some very interesting studies have been done which certainly support the notion that infants and their mothers are meant to share sleep for numerous biological and emotional reasons.

It is an absolute joy to sleep with your baby! Often we are presented with a choice of either meeting our own need for sleep or meeting our baby's needs. When families adopt a flexible attitude to sleep, and are willing to try options such as the family bed (or variations thereof, such as the "side-car" arrangement), they usually find that everyone gets a good night's sleep. It is possible to nurse a baby or toddler several times each night and still get up (reasonably) refreshed in the morning.

Parents who are new to the idea of bed sharing are bound to have many questions. This article aims to cover these issues.

Safety Issues

Safety is of prime concern to all parents. Our babies are far too precious to be taking risks which could be avoided. For a detailed discussion of safety issues, please see the article Co-Sleeping FAQ by Dr. James McKenna, a leading world authority on mother-infant sleep.

It is important, no matter where baby sleeps, that his environment is as safe as possible. It is a very sad fact that babies do die of SIDS or suffocation (in solo and in co-sleeping situations), even when all guidelines have been adhered to; nevertheless it does come down to risk factor and there are certainly things you can do to make your baby's sleep as safe as possible.

Ensure that the bed has a firm mattress, that there are no pillows or soft coverings near baby's head and that baby doesn't become overheated. Many families find that parents can still use pillows for themselves as long as baby is positioned away from them. It also helps to dress everyone's top half warm enough so that covers can be kept at a safe, low level. Co-sleeping on a couch, sofa bed or water bed is not considered safe.

Babies should sleep on their backs. When co-sleeping, generally babies will be nursing off to sleep lying on their sides facing Mum and then when finished nursing will roll back naturally into the safe supine position.

It is also important that parents don't smoke (certainly not anywhere near their children, but there is evidence that co-sleeping with a smoker greatly increases a baby's risk of SIDS, even when the baby is never directly exposed to the smoke) and that parents don't sleep with their children if they are intoxicated, or on any drugs (whether prescribed or not) that would impair their ability to function normally. I would hope that any parent who is under the influence of any of these would not be in sole care of children anyway. Sleeping a child under the age of one next to an older child is also not considered safe, although this does not mean that families cannot co-sleep with more than one child (just keep them separated by at least one adult).

Some parents worry about the possibility of rolling onto their child. Whilst no one can guarantee that this will definitely not happen, the chance of this happening is very remote, as long as sensible precautions are taken (such as not sleeping next to an infant if having consumed alcohol or any kind of medication which would impair judgment or awareness). The truth is that when parents co-sleep they become very aware of the baby's position, even when asleep. Mothers in particular find that they are very aware of their baby. If fathers are worried about rolling onto the child then they will probably not be able to relax and sleep well if directly next to the baby. Many families get around this problem by sleeping baby between Mum and the wall or Mum and a bed guard rather than between the two parents.

I obviously cannot guarantee that any way of sleeping will prevent SIDS, but I can say that I personally feel safe sleeping with my child in the bed, and that I wouldn't hesitate to bring a newborn into the family bed.

Sleeping Arrangements

Various arrangements of sharing sleep include: whole family in the one (preferably king-sized) bed together, perhaps with the bed flush against a wall or with a bed guard to prevent baby falling out; the "side-car" arrangement, where a cot is placed directly beside the parents' bed (with one side of the bars removed) and the cot height is adjusted to match the bed height; the "side-car" arrangement, but with a single bed instead of a cot; a mattress on the floor next to Mum's side of the bed, so that baby can be fetched and returned with ease just as with the side-car variation; wall-to-wall mattresses on the floor for the whole family. The list of possibilities is only restricted by one's imagination, budget and the size of the bedroom!

Many families use different arrangements as their child and family grow. Flexibility is the key, as is a bit of imagination. An arrangement that works well with a tiny infant might be downright dangerous once that child has started to crawl for example! Probably the arrangement that is the safest and most practical for a new crawler is to have mattresses on the floor. If bed guards are used, it is important to note that they do not make the sleeping surface safe when the child is left unattended. They can help stop a child from rolling off a bed, but if baby tries to crawl over a bed guard, the fall resulting could be quite serious. For naps or when baby is sleeping alone for some other reason, some families find that a cot can come in handy, although a mattress on the floor can work fine too. Once a newborn is added to a family with a co-sleeping toddler, any arrangement where mother is sleeping directly next to the baby (for ease of nursing) and there is at least one adult between baby and toddler could work.

Co-sleeping and nursing

I have seen it written that co-sleeping is like the fine print on a breastfeeding contract! Whilst either has its benefits and can work without the other, when put together, nursing and co-sleeping make a wonderful team! Co-sleeping promotes breastfeeding - it helps its initiation and it enables it to continue long-term. Mothers who breastfeed and do not sleep near their babies almost always find it very hard indeed to nurse on demand for an extended period of time - it is simply too exhausting. When mothers and their babies sleep side by side, their sleep cycles get in sync, so mothers stir just as baby is starting to stir, mother can help get baby attached (or with an older baby or toddler, she can do this herself!), and they can both drift back to sleep. No one needs to wake up fully, let alone get out of bed! Fathers also benefit from this arrangement, as they can sleep pretty much undisturbed.

In the early weeks when nighttime nappy changes might be necessary due to frequent BMs, keeping all supplies right beside the bed can help. Once the child is no longer having BMs during the night, most babies can last quite happily until morning with a good quality nappy.

Many women find that they are able to nurse their child several times a night for several years and still get enough rest. I nursed my own child during the night until he was 2 3/4 years old, and for most of that time he was nursing at least every two hours. I simply would not have managed to do that if he wasn't right next to me.

In order to get the full benefit of co-sleeping, it helps to learn how to nurse lying down. The "basic position" is with mother and baby lying side by side on their sides and facing each other. The baby is down at chest level. Some mothers manage to nurse from either breast with baby on the one side, whilst others find they need to move baby to the other side in order to feed from the other breast. Another position that can be comfortable (and can work with twins) is with the mother lying on her back, slightly propped up is she is more comfortable that way, with her arms by her side and a pillow under each one. Baby (or babies!) Lies with his head supported by the mother's arm and his head does not come into contact with the pillow at all (that is important for safety reasons). He lies partly along her arm and partly along her body. For women who do not particularly like sleeping on their sides this position can work really well!

Marital intimacy

A question which naturally arises when someone is considering sharing their bed with their child is, "What about sex?" Well, most of the world's population of parents sleep with their children in the same room, and they seem to manage just fine! In fact, in many societies, the parents make love while their children are sleeping in that room. In our society this idea seems rather shocking to many people, and we wonder whether these children are being psychologically harmed by this, but it is in our society that we have far higher incidence of psychological illness, violent crime, and sexual perversion!

I am not necessarily suggesting that those parents who adopt the family bed should engage in lovemaking with baby in the bed (although many families do so when their babies are young and fast asleep). However, if people can manage to enjoy a healthy sex life with children in the same room, then certainly parents who have large houses with multiple rooms should be able to slip away from baby whilst he is soundly asleep so that they can spend some private time together.

Having said that, I must admit that parents of young children would be unrealistic to expect everything in their physical relationship to remain as it was in their early days of marriage. Especially for mothers who are with their children all day, nighttime fantasies are more likely to be of sleep than sex! Breastfeeding can also affect libido in some women. I believe that this is a natural way of ensuring that another baby won't be born until the current nursling is ready.

Weaning from co-sleeping

Weaning from the family bed (or bedroom) should preferably be at the child's pace. Ideally a child should never have to sleep alone unless he wants to, and in many families a child will choose to move from the parents' bed to a sibling's bed. In any case, the child is likely to want to return to the family bed during times of stress or illness, and parents hopefully will make their children feel welcome.

No one can say at what age a child will be ready to "move out", but it is probably safe to say that you should be prepared for years of co-sleeping rather than months. Although co-sleeping can be done short-term, many families find they enjoy it so much that they are in no rush whatsoever for it to end, and wrenching a child away from such first-class sleeping conditions can be hard if they are not ready.

When your spouse is not so keen

It is not uncommon for a mother to be keen to try co-sleeping but for the father to be having some pretty major reservations. It is important for his concerns to be considered seriously, as for co-sleeping to work well, and for the sake of the relationship, everyone involved needs to be in agreement.

Most concerns tend to be about safety and intimacy. These have been covered above. Often when it has been discussed, Dads are prepared to at least give co-sleeping a try. Certainly from the perspective of both parents being able to get more sleep, many people are willing to have a trial period. The wonderful thing is that almost always those parents who start out very skeptical are soon won over by the joys and convenience of co-sleeping. My own husband was less than enthusiastic at the beginning but now raves about it to his workmates, especially those with new babies and who are complaining about pacing the floors at 3 am with a fractious baby. He brags that he has hardly ever had a disturbed night's sleep and how amazing it is to be able to spend all night next to his precious child when he has been away a lot of the day at work. Surveys have shown that almost inevitably once parents start co-sleeping (and give it a while to adapt to it and find an arrangement that works for them), they never want to go back to solitary sleeping again!

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