Something all new parents realize, and fast, is that a newborn is most comfortable on a warm chest. Their happy place is right on top of their mother’s breasts – that warm, safe place where they can smell and reach her milk. Where they can feel her heart beating and drift in and out of sleep to her familiar voice.
For the majority of human history, this is precisely how our ancestors lived and slept.
Human mothers and babies were rarely separated, and when they were, another female in the community would hold the baby. Centuries passed, and our species thrived by sticking together and nurturing the newcomers.
Modern life here in the West is wholly different, and most mothers have no choice but to raise their children without a community. Bassinets, bouncers, and swings are often necessary as a safe place to stow a baby when there’s not a support person around to take them into their arms.
But it’s important to note that while daily life has drastically changed for our species, our biology has not.
When mothers and babies cosleep today, their heart rates, brain waves, sleep states, oxygen levels, temperature, and breathing still influence one another (Divecha, 2020). That has not changed.
Cosleeping enables easy, on-demand nursing, which in turn leads to a greater breastmilk supply, longer breastfeeding sessions and a longer breastfeeding period. Studies show that it increases baby’s safety, sleep duration for both mother and baby, and sensitivity to one another’s communication (McKenna, 2020).
These documented benefits lead biological anthropologists to believe that mothers and babies are still intended to sleep together, even in our modern world.
Unfortunately their advice is at odds with the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that parents share a bedroom with their baby – but not a bed. But the AAP’s abstinence-only approach to bedsharing doesn’t work at 3 a.m. when a mother desperately pulls her baby into bed. It doesn’t serve parents, and worse, it puts their babies in danger.
Research shows that 70-80% of breastfed babies sleep with their mother some of the time in the early months (Ball, 2022). So all new moms should receive information on safe bedsharing, just in case.
If you are a non-smoker and sober, and your newborn arrived healthy, at full term, you’ve got the green light to bedshare.
Familiarize yourself with the following two positions. Whether you plan on sleeping with your baby every night or it’s a one-time thing, it’s important to know how to do it safely.
1. Safely Sleep with Your Baby on Your Chest
Dress your baby and yourself lightly, as they’ll be absorbing some of your body heat. You don’t want them to overheat. Prop yourself up with pillows at a 25- to 45-degree angle in the center of your mattress. Make sure the pillows are behind your body, so they won’t pose a suffocation risk for your baby.
It’s important to prop yourself up so your baby won’t be lying prone, or flat on their tummy. When they’re lying on you at an upward angle, their body weight will fall on their bottom and legs, not on their chest. Their lungs will be free to open to capacity (Wiessinger, 2014).
You can layer thin, breathable blankets over your legs if needed. You’ll want to keep the area around your body clear of anything soft or fluffy, in case your baby slips down while you’re sleeping. Your baby will find a perfect, snug position on you, and slipping off is rare. But if you’ve set yourself up in the middle of your mattress, without any suffocation hazards nearby, your baby will be okay if it does happen.
For this reason, you should never fall asleep with your baby while you’re on a couch or chair. Most of the statistics about “cosleeping” fatalities involve a couch – not a bed. As long as you follow these safety guidelines from the experts in the field, you can confidently fall asleep as your baby safely sleeps on your chest.
2. Safely Sleep Beside Your Baby on Your Mattress
Some moms and babies prefer to sleep side by side, instead.
You’ll need a firm mattress that doesn’t sag or dip too deep underneath your body. Your baby will fall asleep on their side, as they’re nursing, so you’ll need to make sure their head isn’t in a pocket of air.
Most babies will unlatch from your breast in their sleep and roll backwards on their own. If not, roll them backwards, onto their back, when you notice it (McKenna, 2020). As they get stronger and you feel more comfortable with it, you can let them sleep on their side. They’ll likely be thrilled, as they can park right in front of your breasts and nurse on demand.
The major safety rule to pay attention here is that a baby younger than 12 months should never sleep on their tummy on your mattress. While it’s safe for a baby to sleep on their tummy in a crib, once they learn how to roll both ways, this does not apply to bedsharing on an adult mattress. Remember that the firmest adult mattress is still softer than a crib mattress.
The great news is that it’s a lot easier to keep a wiggle worm on their back if you’re sleeping in the cuddle curl position. To cuddle curl, position yourself in the center of the mattress, on your side. Bend your knees in front of you, so that they’ll prevent you from accidentally rolling forward in your sleep.
Nurse your baby in the side-lying position. Once they’re asleep, they’ll sleep on their back (or on their side, if they’re older) right there in front of you. Mere inches away. Your body’s “c” position will help contain them, so they won’t be able to roll away from you and get into trouble while you sleep. It also facilitates easy breastfeeding throughout the night, as your baby will simply have to turn their head and latch.
When you’re ready to nurse from the other side, you can carefully crawl over your baby to the other side of the mattress. Or you can gently roll your baby over your body, so that they’re on the other side of the mattress. You two will figure out a rhythm that works well for you.
I know from experience that it can feel overwhelming and scary to bring your baby into your bed, with independent sleep pushed on us from every direction. But if there’s a small voice inside that’s telling you that cosleeping is right for your family, listen. Trust your instincts. Stay diligent with these safety guidelines. And let go. Enjoy this precious, limited time you have to sleep cuddled up with your baby.
- McKenna, J. (2020). Safe Infant Sleep. Platypus Media.
- Divecha, D. (2020, February 7). How Cosleeping Can Help You and Your Baby. Greater Good Magazine.
- Ball, H. (2022). Bed-Sharing & Safety. Baby Sleep Info Source.
- Wiessinger, D. et al. (2014). Sweet Sleep. Ballantine Books.
Tiffany Belanger attended UCLA and adventured in the television and film industry prior to parenthood. In 2020 she founded cosleepy.com, a cosleeping one-stop shop to help modern parents keep their babies safe and close at night. She and her husband are currently bedsharing with their two little boys in Sacramento, California. Follow Tiffany on Instagram to connect and commiserate with the largest group of cosleeping parents on the web.
The content provided in this article(s) is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical or other professional advice. Neither Carson Meyer nor C & The Moon LLC are liable for claims arising from the use of or reliance on information contained in this article.