Written by 5:15 pm Baby & Toddler, Pregnancy

Co-Sleeping: the Big Questions

The inside cover of Antonella Gambotto-Burke’s new book Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution (which will be released worldwide 7 July 2015) describes it as a “brilliant, passionate and moving exploration of what it is to be a mother and wife in the twenty-first century.” In it, the Australian author and mother explores (among others) the link between motherhood, love, and human well-being.

One thing that involves all these — motherhood, love, and well-being — is co-sleeping, which Gambotto-Burke talks to us about below. While Tizzie Hall, the International Baby Whisperer and author of the Save Our Sleep series does not recommend it, co-sleeping expert James McKenna has stated in a recent interview that “when done safely, bed sharing makes mothers (and fathers!) and babies happy and has positive developmental effects on growing children”.

Indeed. In this interview, Gambotto-Burke tells us why she believes co-sleeping is best for babies and young children, and how it worked for her and her daughter.

Aren’t you worried you’ll spoil your baby?

Researchers have found that there are certain windows of time during which children are especially sensitive to their environment, and infancy is a critically important period (more here). As the newborn brain is only around 25 per cent finished –- the rest is shaped by his experiences of care-giving — your baby literally cannot be spoilt. (Never, ever raise your voice with a child under the age of three unless he’s in danger – scream into a pillow in the other room if you must.) The way you treat your baby will determine his inner world throughout life, so lavish him with love and tenderness.

What about intimacy with your partner?

One of the things I most loved about co-sleeping was the sex, because it forces creativity. Clearly, we couldn’t make love in bed, and so we ended up all over the house. Lots and lots of fun!

Don’t you long for some alone time with your partner?

The way I see it is this: you had a long time before your baby’s birth to be alone, and will have a long time after your baby grows up to be alone, so revel in your baby’s infancy and childhood.

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Image cc licensed (CC BY 2.0) flickr photo ‘dream’ by Sima Dimitric

How should I prepare for co-sleeping?

  • Do not drink alcohol or take drugs of any description, particularly if you’re also breastfeeding;
  • No smoking anywhere near the baby, ever;
  • Never leave your baby face-down on the bed;
  • Do not co-sleep in a water bed;
  • Do not use quilts or heavy blankets;
  • Tuck the sheets in low, so they cannot cover the baby’s face;
  • Keep all pillows off the bed when your baby is in bed alone;
  • In autumn and winter, turn the heating up;
  • If you are obese, do not co-sleep as obesity reduces physical sensitivity;
  • Never put your baby between you both, because your partner is not hormonally primed to respond to her during sleep;
  • It has been recommended that formula-fed babies room-share rather than co-sleep as bottle-feeding mothers are less responsive in their sleep [McKenna J, (2012), Safe Cosleeping Guidelines, accessed on 27th January 2012 from here]
  • Never leave an older baby alone on the bed without bed rails, as she can roll off; and
  • Ensure that you are never exhausted beyond vigilance. Take care of yourself always.

I’ve heard that co-sleeping is related to SIDS. Is this true?

The very opposite is true: putting a baby in a cot increases the risk of SIDS and fatal sleep accidents. It has been found that the majority of American and other Western infants die from SIDS or from fatal accidents during solitary sleep outside the supervision of a committed adult [Drago DA, Dannenberg AL. “Infant mechanical suffocation deaths in the United States,1980-1997”. Pediatrics. 1999;103(5):e59. Available here].

The facts are these:

1. Breastfed babies are less likely to die from SIDS [Hauck FR, Thompson JM, Tanabe KO, Moon RY, Vennemann MM 2011, Breastfeeding and reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome: a meta-analysis, Pediatrics, 128(1):103-10].

2. The lowest SIDS rates are those in cultures that traditionally co-sleep. [See here]

As psychologist Margot Sunderland wrote, “It is known from scientific studies that when a baby is separated from his mother’s body, he moves into a primitive defence mode, which can result in wildly irregular breathing and heartbeat. After six hours, a baby separated from his mother has stress hormone levels twice as high as a baby whose mother is close by. In contrast, being in close bodily contact with the mother stabilises a baby’s heartbeat and breathing.” [Margot Sunderland, “Sleep and Bedtimes”, The Science of Parenting, DK 2006, pp75]

What do you think of controlled crying?

Out of ignorance and expedience, a terrifying number of GPs will recommend controlled crying. In considering it, I am reminded only of Anne F. Thurston’s report on a Chinese orphanage: “I had been warned, by friends and by the media, about the Chinese orphanage – the dying room for infants and the children being allowed to starve. But I was not prepared. I had expected the dying children to be crying, begging to be saved. Instead they were silent, withdrawn, immobile. They had no expectation of being comforted or saved, or even any obvious awareness of the two women passing by. They were miniature versions of the ‘Muselmänner’ of the Nazi concentration camps, the ones who stopped struggling, gave up living, waited only for death – the ones from whom other inmates recoiled, as though the Muselmänner’s resignation were contagious, the kiss of death.”

Which is about it, really: your baby will, after nights of anguish, become silent, withdrawn, and immobile when placed in her cot. You may dismiss it as a temporary grief, but the most important lesson she will learn is this: that you cannot be relied upon to be there when she needs you.

Don’t you think sleeping with a baby is helicopter parenting gone mad?

If I asked what you most desire when you fall in love, your reply would involve physical proximity to the beloved – kissing, cuddling, caressing, nuzzling, talking, and so on. And it’s the same with your baby. Unless hampered by your own subconscious memories of infancy, you will fall in love with your baby and want to be near them, always. Which is the way evolution designed it, because babies are completely vulnerable. And, unlike older children, little babies do not wriggle or flail. They sleep very quietly and very sweetly when next to their mothers. The idea that we can love our babies too much is a by-product of disastrous ideologies dating back to Ancient Greece.

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Image: Kit Wise

How will they ever learn to sleep by themselves?

At the age of four and a half, my daughter Bethesda’s legs had grown to the point where it was like sleeping with an octopus, so we had no option but to turf her out of bed. I gave her my old queen-sized bed –- a beautiful wooden bed –- and bought her pretty bedlinen. She was beside herself with excitement.

It all sounds terribly cosy, but are there any real advantages to co-sleeping?

First, I would argue that cosiness is a very significant benefit of co-sleeping. Without tenderness and affection, infants and little children have been known to sicken and die. From science writer Maia Szalavitz: “Research on the dangers of institutional care for young children dates back to the 1940s. For as long as they have existed, orphanages have always had alarmingly high death rates. From the early 20th century onwards, this was blamed on contagious disease – and so, attempts were made to keep orphanages sterile, to isolate children from each other by doing things like hanging sterilised sheets between their cribs.

But Austrian psychoanalyst and physician Rene Spitz proposed an alternate theory. He thought that infants in institutions suffered from lack of love – that they were missing important parental relationships, which in turn was hurting or even killing them.

To test his theory, he compared a group of infants raised in isolated hospital cribs with those raised in a prison by their own incarcerated mothers. If the germs from being locked up with lots of people were the problem, both groups of infants should have done equally poorly. In fact, the hospitalised kids should have done better, given the attempts made at imposing sterile conditions. If love mattered, however, the prisoners’ kids should prevail.

Love won: 37 per cent of the infants kept in the bleak hospital ward died, but there were no deaths at all amongst the infants raised in the prison. The incarcerated babies grew more quickly, were larger and did better in every way Spitz could measure. The orphans who managed to survive the hospital, in contrast, were more likely to contract all types of illnesses. They were scrawny and showed obvious psychological, cognitive and behavioural problems.

Second, a magical process called “thermal synchrony” takes place during co-sleeping. When co-sleeping, your temperature will adapt to serve your baby – if he’s overheating, your body temperature will drop to cool him; if he’s a little chilly, your temperature will rise to warm him.

Your baby’s proximity to your body will also synchronise your sleep patterns, your metabolic rates, your heart rates, your breathing, your enzyme production (strengthening his immune system), your hormone levels, and your arousal patterns.

In short: co-sleeping not only cements the intimacy between you and your baby, but helps your baby self-regulate and grow brighter and stronger.

Antonella Gambotto-Burke is the author of Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution (Pinter & Martin). Antonella can be contacted through www.antonellagambottoburke.com

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