The Beauty of Breastsleeping
Updated: Jun 11
After attending a childbirth and infant care class at the hospital, my husband and I left with a little board book about safe baby sleep. It outlined the ABC’s for us to implement with our baby: alone, on his back and in the crib. These steps seemed simple enough to follow and I never gave it another thought, until my baby came.
Our baby spent some time in the NICU during which he was frequently enjoying skin-to-skin contact with me or my husband. Once we got home, he slept in his bassinet for no more than an hour or two at a time for about one month. During that first month, I was hospitalized for mastitis twice and was horribly stressed and sleep deprived while recovering from surgery. Even though he was in the bassinet next to our bed, having to wake up and safely transfer my newborn back and forth as I breastfed him throughout the night was a difficult task and interrupted any sleep I could have possibly gotten.
After he had passed his due date and gained a significant amount of weight, I started “breastsleeping”. Breastsleeping is a beautiful thing that helps families get more sleep; it is simply co-sleeping in the same bed while providing unlimited access for the child to nurse throughout the night. Not only is it the biologically normal way infants sleep, but it saves mamma a lot of energy as she does not have to constantly get up and walk to a nursery or take baby out of a crib to feed him. Breastsleeping is about more than the convenience, it also maintains the mother’s supply and puts the baby at ease as he feels safe and secure.
Dr. James J. Mckenna can be referred to as the king of cosleeping research and I thank him for coining the term, “breastsleeping”. He explains how cosleeping encourages breastfeeding and may reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (2). He refers to the practice of having babies sleep alone as "an extremely recent cultural experiment”, as it has only been happening over the last several decades (1). Although I was doing this long before I had discovered his articles, I have learned so much about the importance of biologically normal infant sleep for my breastfed child.
“By sleeping next to its mother, the infant receives protection, warmth, emotional reassurance, and breast milk - in just the forms and quantities that nature intended”. -James McKenna, Ph.D.
I also read, reviewed and practiced La Leche League’s “safe sleep seven” to be sure I would not put my child in danger. These guidelines to help families safely bedshare are: 1) no smoking, 2) sober parents, 3) nursing mother, 4) healthy baby, 5) baby on back, 6) no swaddle, and 7) safe surface (5). More details about each necessary precaution can be found on their website which I have listed below under references.
When my baby was 4 months old, the pediatrician told us it was time to move the baby to the crib. She knew we were cosleeping and seemed fine with it, but still explained that the crib is the recommended place for him. I went months feeling guilty about my baby not sleeping in his crib and tried many times to make use of it. Every time we tried “gentle sleeping training”, my heart ached and my stomach turned until I felt physically ill. My baby cried every time, even though we never left him alone. He usually woke up every 30-60 minutes searching for my breast and almost every time I rushed in right away. On some rare occasions I tried the dreaded sleep training idea of waiting a minute or so, but that failed almost always. All he wanted was to be comforted by his mother's breast and I tried to deny him that, all because society told me to. I knew it wasn’t right and I deeply regret that I ignored my maternal instincts.
The longest we lasted of trying to get our baby to sleep in the crib was 8 nights when he was about 8 months old, and those 8 nights were just as exhausting as the first month. A couple of weeks later, my menstrual cycle returned for the first time. This completely crushed me because it was another sign that I interfered with nature and disrupted my body’s natural cycle and communication with my son. The guilt I feel is so immense and I promised myself to never ever put my baby in a situation in which he fears his needs are not being met. I felt just as horrible and alone as my baby did and I did not get any more sleep by forcing him to sleep alone. Not only did I have to get up to go back and forth between our rooms, but for the short periods of time that he actually did sleep in the crib, I stayed awake to watch the monitor instead of sleeping. I could not rest if I could not hear, feel or see my baby breathe.
Fast forward to a year later and the crib is still being used as a stuffed animal holder. Unfortunately, our society is known to shame mothers who bed share with their children rather than focusing on spreading valid information to help families bed-share safely. If a mother is safely co-sleeping and follows La Leche League’s “safe sleep seven”, breastsleeping actually may reduce the risk of SIDS significantly (5). Other key benefits of bed-sharing may include: parents and babies getting more sleep, close contact to the breast allows baby to be soothed back to sleep before fully waking up, easier to nurse overnight because of closeness, maintains milk supply, prolongs the child-spacing effects of breastfeeding and prevents separation anxiety (3).
Another aspect I’d like to point out is our culture's obsession with making money. If people are convinced we have to force children to sleep alone against their will, that opens up plenty of opportunities for people to earn money off of others’ false “problems”. The biological norm for thousands of years around the world had been children sleeping near their mothers, and that is how our babies’ brains are programmed today (1). Americans spend ridiculous amounts of money on cribs, nursery furniture and bigger homes, meanwhile all we need is a big enough bed to share with our babies!
Then we have the “sleep training consultants“. Sleep training is not natural nor necessary, as learning to sleep on our own is a milestone just like walking or crawling; a child will do it when he is ready. This whole industry is a reminder of how much our culture values profits over people. There are even a few famous “sleep trainers” on social media that, like most pediatricians, focus on feeding, not comforting. Clearly there will come a point in which a child no longer needs to feed overnight for hunger, but he may still have the need for connection and security, and it is vital we provide that as parents. It is true that parents also need to sleep enough and be well-rested. Those who struggle with sleep can certainly seek help from professionals without having to enforce "sleep training" as there are many possible solutions based on each individual situation.
In addition to these crucial steps above, Dr. McKenna adds some key points in his book, "Sleeping with Your Baby: a Parents Guide to Cosleeping". For example, in the second part of his book in which he describes how to cosleep, he writes about the added risks of obese parents sharing a bed with an infant because they could "(...) create a depression or space into which the baby may roll while sleeping", which can then result in a higher risk of suffocation (4). I especially appreciate his visual illustration of "the proper way to cosleep" in which he stresses the importance of having the bed-frame removed with the mattress placed on the floor in the center of the room so that there are no hazardous gaps or spaces for the baby to fall into. There are many other useful and informative topics he touches upon related to cosleeping, but what left the greatest impact on my mind was the importance of "(...) the stimulation from maternal-infant contact and interactions-including nighttime sensory exchanges" which play a crucial role in the development of neonatal brain cells (4). Finally, the book discusses the importance of cosleeping for both breastfed and formula-fed babies, but also has a whole section dedicated to why cosleeping is important for breastfeeding families (4).
I write to empower and share knowledge with families who choose to safely breastsleep, not to shame those who do use cribs. If you have a unicorn baby who loves sleeping alone in his own bed, more power to you! Again, we know that each situation is unique and no two babies are alike. Maybe even I will one day encounter a unicorn baby too.
As Dr. McKenna claims, "one-size-does-not-fit-all when it comes to sleeping arrangements"(4). We are all responsible to make the best informed decisions we can for our own families, as no one knows our babies better than we do.
“Articles by James McKenna.” Articles by James McKenna - The Natural Child Project, www.naturalchild.org/articles/james_mckenna/.
“Dr. McKenna's Biography.” Dr. McKenna's Biography // Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory // University of Notre Dame, cosleeping.nd.edu/mckenna-biography/.
J, Thompson, and Tanabe K. “Co-Sleeping and Bed-Sharing • KellyMom.com.” KellyMom.com, 10 Mar. 2019, kellymom.com/parenting/nighttime/cosleeping/.
McKenna, James J.Sleeping with Your Baby: a Parents Guide to Cosleeping. Platypus Media, LLC, 2012.
“The Safe Sleep Seven.” La Leche League International, 17 Jan. 2019, www.llli.org/the-safe-sleep-seven/.