Should bedsharing/ co-sleeping only be for breastfed babies?
I think it’s time to look at this issue a little more, of all the things I write about unbelievably the most contentious is my suggestion that only mothers who are breastfeeding should share a bed with their baby. In fact I have received a fair deal of angry backlash in response to this, mostly by mothers who think I am being “anti formula feeding” and spreading incorrect information, so I think the time has come for this idea to have it’s own blog post.
So – why do I believe that mothers should only share a bed with their baby if they are breastfeeding? Particularly when most of the safe co-sleeping/bedsharing guidelines omit this point.
Let me start by saying I believe this is an area that is in desperate need of further research, I am still saddened that bedsharing research misses the most important points, for instance research quoted by FSIDS to support their claim that “the safest place for your baby to sleep for the first 6mths is a cot in your room” whereas this is not the case if you read the evidence (and that evidence too misses out several variables that could create a huge difference) – but it is VITAL that research, well constructed research, is undertaken accounting for all of these variables, but most importantly accounting for feeding method.
Before I go further I would like to quickly point out the following:
Bedsharing – sharing a bed with your infant
Co-Sleeping – sharing a room with your infant
I have used the term co-sleeping in the title of this post purely for SEO purposes.
The following are reasons you may want to think again if you you formula feed and share a bed with your baby:
1) Formula fed babies are at greater risk of SIDS than breastfed babies (wherever they sleep). See here for more. It makes sense to me then to be warier of introducing anything that may further compound this risk, with this in mind alone it is vital that if sharing a bed with a formula fed baby every single safety recommendation for bedsharing is followed exactly.
2) Formula fed babies are in general less arousable than breastfed babies during certain phases of sleep, this means that babies who are formula fed tend to awaken less readily than those who are breastfed if there is a threat to their life during certain sleep phases (this may be in part a reason for point 1 above). In particular this difference is seen the most during active sleep states at 2-3mths, which is the peak SIDS risk period.
3) Mothers who breastfeed experience different sleep to those who formula feed and awaken more regularly than formula feeding mothers during the night. Breastfeeding mothers seem to be more in tune with their baby during the night and as such may be more arousable than mothers who formula feed and may be more likely to awaken if there baby stops breathing/falls etc.
I guess the problem comes when we feed our babies via another method than nature intended – nature understandably does not then provide the same protection and it is important we respect that.
To quote from University of Notre-Dame’s Sleep Lab’s website:
“all else being safe, bed-sharing among nonsmoking mothers who sleep on firm mattresses specifically for purposes of breast feeding, may be the most ideal form of bed-sharing where both mother and baby can benefit by, among other things, the baby getting more of mother’s precious milk and both mothers and babies getting more sleep – two findings which emerged from our own studies.”
Here’s a great video interview with Dr. James McKenna where he speaks more about breastfeeding mothers bedsharing and SIDS:
4) Mothers who breastfeed are far more likely to adopt a cradling/side laying position with their baby (the advised position to adopt when sharing a bed with your baby) and are more responsive to their baby’s movements in the night – this is currently being researched by two centres – Durham University sleep lab in the UK and James McKenna’s sleep laboratory in the University of Notre Dame.
For all of the reasons above I personally only feel confident in advocating bedsharing if the mother is breastfeeding, however unpopular my opinion may be, it has nothing to do with my opinions on breastfeeding V formula feeding (for the record I don’t have one – I have 4 kids, one was breastfed for 4mths, then moved onto formula, one was breastfed for 8wks, then moved onto formula, one was breastfed until 6mths and the last I breastfed for 4yrs!) and everything to do with keeping babies safe.
Sarah (Mum to Four, Parenting Author and Founder of BabyCalm Ltd)
You can read more of Sarah’s articles HERE.
Sarah offers email coaching for tired new parents searching for gentle ways to help their babies to sleep. You can contact her HERE.
- Horne RS, Parslow PM, Harding R. Respiratory control and arousal in sleeping infants. Paediatr Respir Rev. 2004 Sep;5(3):190-8.
- McKenna JJ, McDade T. Why babies should never sleep alone: a review of the co-sleeping controversy in relation to SIDS, bedsharing and breast feeding. Paediatr Respir Rev. 2005 Jun;6(2):134-52.
- Parslow PM, Ferens D, Watts AM, Adamson TM. Comparison of evoked arousability in breast and formula fed infants. Arch Dis Child. 2004 Jan;89(1):22-5.
- Kahn A, Groswasser J, Franco P, Scaillet S, Sawaguchi T, Kelmanson I, Dan B. Sudden infant deaths: stress, arousal and SIDS. Early Hum Dev. 2003 Dec;75 Suppl:S147-66.