There are so many opinions on infant sleep! Some will tell you that the safest place for a baby to sleep is in their own crib- void of all objects like blankets, bumpers, and stuffed animals. Then you read a mommy-blog telling you to fill the crib with items that smell like you so your baby will feel comforted. Other experts will tell you that the best place for a baby to sleep is in bed with mom and dad. Then you turn on the news and hear a story about a baby who died while sleeping in its parents bed, and you go into absolute panic because you have NO IDEA who you should believe, and all you want is to be able to sleep knowing that your baby is safe and that you won’t be a sleep-deprived mom-zombie in the morning!
Let me give you some practical, personal and professional advice: as a mother who has endured many sleepless nights, as a childbirth educator who has been researching the topic for years, and as a rational person who can look at both sides and help you make a moderate decision that is not only safe, but practical for your family.
You’ve heard the phrase “sleep when the baby sleeps”. I’m modifying it to “sleep how the baby sleeps”. Your baby will tell you how he/she likes to sleep. If you want to get the most sleep possible, then you need to cue into your baby’s needs, and find a sleep routine that allows everyone to sleep as much as possible.
Co-sleeping was an absolute no-no when I had my first baby 12 years ago. But she wanted to co-sleep soooo bad! Instead of giving in, I opted for walking the halls all night and shh-ing her for hours. I about died. Words cannot even express the exhaustion I experienced. But I’m not a quitter, so this continued for months. After a few months I would give in at about 5:00 in the morning and nurse her in bed for about 4 to 5 hours. These were literally the only hours we slept. And even though I was desperate for sleep, I woke up each morning vowing to not “give in” again. (Why on earth wouldn’t I co-sleep with my baby when it was clearly the only way I was going to get any sleep?! Because no one told me I could sleep with her!)
Instead of fighting co-sleeping, I should have researched how to co-sleep safely. Research clearly shows that co-sleeping is safe when parents are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and when parents aren’t obese. It’s also safer to co-sleep in a bed, as opposed to a couch or recliner. Co-sleeping should be on a flat, firm surface, and blankets should be light as your baby will be warm from your own body heat. For years our culture has tried to eliminate co-sleeping, but most parents will find themselves co-sleeping to a certain degree.
Studies show that moms are impressively responsive to their babies, even when they are sleeping! Co-sleeping allows moms to sleep through feeds (assuming they are breastfeeding) and eliminates the need to wake up and walk across the hall to put your baby down in their crib, which also risks waking the baby up (and tires mom out)! Breastfeeding while sleeping also decreases the risk of SIDS, as sleep is lighter when babies frequently suck.
Fast forward several years to the birth of my third child. He was more than happy to sleep by himself, and actually seemed to sleep better if he wasn’t nursing all night. So I enjoyed having a little more freedom and slept him in his own little bed in my bedroom. (Proximity is something all experts agree on. Babies should sleep nearby; whether that’s in your bed or just in your room is your decision, but they should be close enough that you can respond quickly to their needs and assess their safety.) The downside to him wanting to sleep alone was waking more fully to feed him, as feeding him required me getting out of bed. For this reason, many women choose to bottle feed so dad can take his turn at night. This works for some families, but it’s also noteworthy to point out that dads are less likely to wake up to a baby crying, and often mom has to wake up in order to wake up dad to take his turn, which kind of negates the whole point of taking turns. If you are planning on taking turns at night then I’d suggest sleeping in a different room if it’s your night off.
My youngest child did a mix of co and independent sleeping. He started out the night alone in his crib, but once he woke up to nurse he didn’t want to go back to his bed. So we spent most mornings from about 3:00 am to 7:00 am co-sleeping. (This was actually my favorite arrangement. I was able to spend some time alone in the early night while he slept alone, but then I got to snuggle him for part of the night, too!)
Instead of trying to plan your sleeping arrangement before your baby arrives, plan on being flexible and working to determine how your child sleeps best, because that is how you will sleep best, too. The best sleeping arrangement is an arrangement that actually involves sleeping – not walking the halls!