Breastsleeping: breastfeeding mothers sharing the same or an adjacent sleep surface, (i.e. cosleeping*), with their infants in the absence of all hazardous factors.
Breastsleeping is a new concept proposed by researchers from the University of Notre Dame. It is an important move towards normalising bedsharing for breastfeeding infants, allowing for proper education surrounding an already prevalent practice.
In a 2015 article McKenna and Gettler discuss the mutually reinforcing relationship between breastfeeding and bedsharing. Breastfeeding babies want to maintain proximity to their mother, and this can be satisfied through bedsharing. Bedsharing in turn increases the frequency and length of breastfeeding. The constant mother-infant contact that comes with bedsharing promotes lactogenesis – improving breastmilk supply and helping sustain breastfeeding over time.
Unfortunately, in Western cultures bedsharing has gained a negative reputation as a risk for SIDS. New parents are warned against it, and those who do bedshare don’t talk about it.
Based on the information I was given while pregnant and then while caring for a newborn, I thought the worst possible thing I could do to my baby was to put him in my bed.
However, around 4 months of age my son started waking frequently in the night. I tried everything possible to get him to sleep for more than 3 consecutive hours (typically it was 1 or 2). Every tip or old wives tale I heard, we tried. But nothing worked. Until one night, sometime in the wee hours when he was absolutely refusing to go back to sleep, my husband suggested I put him into bed with me. Previously I would have been outraged that he would suggest we engage in such risky behaviour with our son, but I was utterly and completely exhausted so I agreed. He fell asleep almost immediately and slept soundly for the rest of the night.
I soon realised that the easiest way for me to get sleep was to have my son in bed with me, so it began happening more frequently. And as I confided in other mothers I discovered that this was something that almost everyone was doing but no one was talking about.
Regarding the ‘Safe to Sleep’ campaigns against bedsharing originating in the United States, McKenna and Gettler write:
“In addition to possibly undermining breastfeeding, such recommendations prevent parents from gaining access to information on minimising bedsharing risks, should parents choose to do so, as millions do.”
This highlights two key points – that millions are already bedsharing, and that by ignoring this fact people are not being educated about safe bedsharing practices. And it can indeed be safe (as evidenced in many cultures where breastsleeping is the norm).
Research on SIDS and bedsharing suggests that the association is not linear but rather it depends on the sleeping environment. When hazards are present, bedsharing will increase the risk of SIDS compared to sleeping in separate spaces. But when hazards are not present, bedsharing while breastfeeding (breastsleeping) will actually decrease the risk of SIDS (due to the frequent breastfeeds and the regulating effect of maternal presence on infant physiology). Hazards include parents who smoke, parents under the influence of drugs or alcohol, pets in the bed, and sleep surfaces other than a bed (e.g., a sofa).
This is why the concept of breastsleeping is an important one – it specifies the conditions under which bedsharing is not only safe but even advantageous. When there are no hazards and the infant is breastfeeding, bedsharing can help sustain breastfeeding, support infant sleep and, not of least importance, allow the mother to get more sleep (because sleep deprivation is no joke!). Hopefully the creation of the breastsleeping concept will start a movement towards more acceptance and recognition of the advantages of mother-infant bedsharing.
*note that ‘cosleeping’ typically includes bedsharing as well as room sharing however the McKenna and Gettler paper focuses on bedsharing