by Randall Neustaedter OMD
It seems obvious that babies who sleep with their parents are likely to breastfeed more than babies who sleep in a separate room. They will probably nurse more often and nurse for a longer duration of their lives. A study published in the November 2010 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has verified this assumption, showing that breastfeeding is more prevalent in families where babies share a bed with their parents (Blair, 2010).
Breast milk confers many advantages compared to formula feeding including less infections, less allergies and asthma, and higher intelligence (Oddy, 2004). And the duration of breastfeeding is associated with higher intelligence and higher academic achievement in childhood (Horwood, 1998). This effect persists even into adulthood. A longer duration of breastfeeding is associated with higher intelligence during adult life (Mortensen, 2002).
Bed sharing (or cosleeping) itself is also beneficial to babies. The close contact of parents and their babies through the night is associated with less crying, fewer apnea spells, lower stress levels, and greater daily growth (Field, 1995). Bed sharing is also protective for SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). A study in South Africa showed that bed sharing babies have higher survival rates than solitary sleeping babies (Kibel, 2000). In cultures where bed sharing is the norm (Japan, Hong Kong) SIDS rates are among the lowest in the world (Fukai, 2000; Lee, 1999).
The British Study
The study published in Pediatrics included 14,000 babies evaluated at five time points from birth to four years of age. This study found that the prevalence of breastfeeding was significantly higher for babies that shared a bed with their parents during the first 15 months after birth. The authors discovered that approximately one-third of English parents share beds with their infants or children on a regular basis, some just during the infancy period, some when the child is somewhat older, and six percent from birth until the child reaches school age (Blair, 2010).
The authors pose the question: “Do mothers share beds because they are breastfeeding or does bed sharing make breastfeeding more likely to be successful?” They acknowledge the benefits of breastfeeding and they suggest that bed sharing does make breastfeeding easier. They also recognize that eight out of eleven previous studies showed a positive association between breastfeeding and sharing the bed (Buswell, 2007).
Safety of Bed Sharing
Concerns have arisen about the possible hazards to babies who sleep in their parents’ beds. Many pediatric professionals counsel parents to leave babies in their own rooms during the night. Others have protested this advice as unsafe, emphasizing that with proper safety precautions the parents’ bed or an attached cosleeper is the ideal place for babies to sleep. The association between bed sharing and infant deaths occurs primarily when parents are unresponsive to their babies due to the use of alcohol, drugs, or sleeping medications. In normal situations parents who sleep with their babies are responsive to their baby’s signals and attentive to their needs through the night. Simple precautions such as using a mesh guardrail with a rolled up blanket in any crevices, using a firm mattress without fluffy bedding, and avoiding alcohol, smoking, drugs or sleep medications will keep babies safe in their parents’ beds.
Renowned anthropologist and infant sleep expert James McKenna PhD has eloquently shared his perspective on bed sharing. “When practiced safely, cosleeping with breastfeeding… represents a highly effective, adaptive, integrated childcare system that can enhance attachment, communication, nutrition, and infant immune efficiency thanks to the increased breastfeeding and the increased parental supervision and mutual affection that accompany this practice” (McKenna, 2002).
Blair PS, Heron J, Fleming PJ. Relationship Between Bed Sharing and Breastfeeding: Longitudinal, Population-Based Analysis. Pediatrics Vol. 126 No. 5 November 2010, pp. e1119-e1126 (doi:10.1542/peds.2010-1277).
Buswell SD and Spatz DL. Parent-Infant Co-sleeping and Its Relationship to Breastfeeding. Journal of Pediatric Health Care 2007; 21 (1): 22-28.
Field T, ed. Touch in Early Development. Mahway, New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum and Assoc., 1995.
Fukai S and Hiroshi F. 1999 Annual Report, Japan SIDS Family Association,” Sixth SIDS International Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, 2000.
Horwood LJ, Fergusson DM. Breastfeeding and later cognitive and academic outcomes. Pediatrics 1998; 101:1-7.
Kibel MA and Davies MF. Should the Infant Sleep in Mother’s Bed? Program and Abstracts, Sixth SIDS International Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, February 8-11, 2000.
Lee NP, et al., Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in Hong Kong: Confirmation of Low Incidence, British Medical Journal 298 (1999): 72.
McKenna JJ. Breastfeeding and Bedsharing Still Useful (and Important) After All These Years. Mothering Magazine 2002; 114.
Mortensen EL, et al. The association between duration of breastfeeding and adult intelligence. JAMA 2002; 287:2365-71.
Oddy WH, et al. The relation of breastfeeding and body mass index to asthma and atopy in children: A prospective cohort study to age 6 years. American Journal Public Health 2004; 94(9):1531-7.