Nighttime Parenting

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When I had my first child I read books about letting your baby cry it out and sleep in her own crib.  It was supposed to be “better” and make my life “easier.”  Instead, it made me a nervous wreck.  The more I learned about my baby as an individual the more I felt uncomfortable with training her that way.  At that point I don’t think I had ever heard the term “attachment parenting” and I had never read a book on it.  I just prayed and started following my own instincts.  Which meant that she spent most nights in our bed.

Little-by-little my parenting style evolved into co-sleeping, baby-wearing, extended-nursing earthy-crunchy momma.  You can call it old-school and primitive or you can call it progressive.  To me, though, it has been what has come naturally.  I learned that I could consult all the child-rearing experts in the world, but I was the expert on my baby.  No one knew her better than I did.  If I paid attention to all the experts I’d have to change my parenting style every other week.  There is always some new study, new author, new PhD that has the answer to all parenting woes.  Some new gadget or method is supposed to make us happier or smarter or better adjusted.  What I find amazing is that we think that as a society we are so much more evolved than the rest of the world.  We think that modern research trumps ancient wisdom.  But, that is not necessarily the case.

The puzzling question of co-sleeping

Recently I was watching TV and a commercial came on, paid for by the county health department, on the dangers of sleeping with your baby.  The gist was that every baby deserved his own bed and that co-sleeping or bed-sharing was inherently dangerous.  I couldn’t help but think of the undue strain this type of propaganda campaign placed on lower income parents who may live in small apartments or rooms and cannot afford a crib or perhaps don’t have space for one.

Also, what these campaigns don’t tell you is that in nearly every single bed-sharing death reported the babies were not breastfed, but formula fed, something that co-sleeping and bed-sharing advocates have long pointed to as a factor when it comes to SIDS.  The difference is not that formula feeding mothers are inferior to breastfeeding mothers.  The difference is that the hormones released during nursing and the psychological bonding that occurs makes it nearly impossible for a mother to be unaware of her baby thereby rolling on her.  Breastfeeding is a component of safe sleep-sharing.

Co-sleeping or bed-sharing, has shown in study after study to reduce the incidence of SIDS.  To try to pin SIDS on co-sleeping or bed-sharing is very short-sighted.  Remember that we used to call SIDS “crib death!”  Babies have suffered from SIDS when sleeping on their own in their own cribs.

Besides being a protective factor against SIDS, co-sleeping and bed-sharing is practically universal.  In almost all cultures, including ours, parents sleep with their babies.  Do we really want to vilify something that is so common and natural around the world, rather than educating people about safe co-sleeping practices?  It would seem that these types of campaigns put a lot of good parents in opposition to public policy.

This is what two weeks post-partum is like.

This is what two weeks post-partum is like.

Nighttime Parenting

When it all comes down, all of our “advancements” have in some ways robbed us of our instincts and common sense.  Nature points us to breastfeeding, not formula feeding.  (No offense to those who must formula feed for health, medical or personal reasons. This is not to be a guilt-inducing topic.  Remember, we are all on a journey our own.)  Nature shows us that breastfeeding mothers who sleep with a baby have increased awareness of their surroundings and of their babies.  Nursing while co-sleeping is an important facet of nighttime parenting.

Babies’ sleep cycles (between “light” or REM sleep and deep sleep) are shorter than adults.  They startle themselves awake quite easily.  And unlike grown-ups, they can’t just turn themselves over and go back to sleep.  They can’t get up for a drink or water or a trip to the bathroom.  Babies often need to be parented back to sleep.

Training a child to sleep through the night thereby encouraging long deep sleep cycles may stunt his or her brain development.  During REM sleep the brain is very active and blood flow greatly increases.  This is when the brain is actually LEARNING!  The brain is creating the nerve proteins that actually build the brain and the brain is processing everything seen and experienced during awake time.  During deep sleep, however, the brain does less and operates at a lower level–less blood flow, less growth.  Babies’ brains grow to nearly 70% of their adult volume during the first two years of life.  So, these are ideal years for having shorter sleep cycles, awakening more often and “light” sleep.

Also, by training a baby to sleep through the night a parent is encouraging longer periods of deep sleep, which may be great for mom and dad, but not so good for baby.  Babies’ breathing is irregular and there are sometimes pauses.  However, babies startle easily and go in and out of REM sleep frequently.  If they enter into a deep sleep for too long some research is showing that it can increase their risk of SIDS. Dr. Sears
writes, “I believe that training babies to sleep too deeply, too long, too soon, while convenient to parents, is not in a baby’s best biological interest. Sleep- training done before their cardiopulmonary control mechanisms are mature enough to handle prolonged deep sleep could be risky. Training a baby to fall asleep and stay asleep alone in his own room in his own crib may be the “modern” way, but for some infants sleeping lighter and for shorter stretches may be the safer way.”

Imagine being cradled in a warm, safe and secure environment where there is constant soothing noises.  You’re never hungry, never thirsty, and never alone.  That’s a baby’s life before birth.  Imagine suddenly being born–an emotional event in itself!–and then being put in a crib alone, in a room separate from your mother’s sight, smell, touch, and sounds.  It could be very disconcerting.  The nighttime could be a very long and lonely period.  Co-sleeping reduces infant anxiety.

When a mother and child sleep together, their breathing synchronizes.  Without perhaps knowing it, they touch each other in the night, adjust to one another and bring one another in and out of sleep patterns.

Co-sleeping also helps foster the breastfeeding relationship.  Baby has easy access to nursing, reducing the incidence of mom becoming engorged from too long a period without nursing or poor milk supply from not frequent enough nursing.  (Milk supply is basic economics–supply and demand.)

In addition to these benefits to baby, there are some real benefits for parents who co-sleep:

First of all, you’ll be much less sleep deprived.  I sleep quite well most nights, even with a baby in my bed.  When we snuggle down for the night I know he will be waking up in a few hours.  I do not have to get up to retrieve him from another room or another bed.  I simply direct him to the breast if he needs help, (but once nursing is established babies rarely need help.  They have radar.  They know where mom and boob are.)  I drift right back to sleep.  And unless the baby is being particular fussy because of something like teething, my husband never has to wake up.  So, he’s not dragging himself to work sleep deprived.

Being able to parent my child in the night, without having him cry himself to sleep reduces my anxiety, too.  Co-sleeping fosters harmony between mother and child.

Also, when a mother nurses a child to sleep and falls asleep herself, her body releases extra prolactin–keeping her in a positive emotional state and suppressing ovulation.   Nighttime parenting is an important part of ecological breastfeeding or natural child spacing.

The point of this post is not to try to convince you to co-sleep if you don’t want to.  If you are in doubt, research it for yourself and follow your own intuition.  You know how you sleep.  If you don’t feel safe, don’t do it.  The point is that co-sleeping is natural, universal, and safe when practiced by good parents who use their common sense and intuition.

If you are going to co-sleep:

1) Breastfeed

2) Don’t smoke in the home or around the baby

3) Don’t go to bed impaired by drugs or other substances

4) Keep the blankets and pillows away from the baby’s face

A newborn baby has only three demands.
They are warmth in the arms of its mother,
food from her breasts,
and security in the knowledge of her presence.
(Grantly Dick-Read)
[DISCLAIMER: Every parent needs to do his or her own research and consult their own physician when being advised about health care and child rearing.  The advice on this site is not a substitute for professional medical advice or your own common sense.]


  1. yasmine - January 24, 2015

    Such a well written article! I love the quote at the end. 

  2. Georgina - January 22, 2015

    Thank you Daja for sensitive and insightful post.  

  3. AMEN!

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