Waking up to the benefits of sleeping with your baby

At best it's unfashionable, at worst it's risky. But parents are now realising the pros of the age-old practice of sleeping with baby. Georgiana Treasure-Evans explains why she and her family couldn't have it any other way

With our baby Jemima we were relatively lucky. Once asleep, she stayed that way, but it was getting her to nod off that was the problem. My husband and I took turns rocking her to sleep, but at four months our lost evenings began to get us down, so we followed the advice of friends and books and taught her to do it on her own - otherwise known as letting her cry herself to sleep (though we never left her alone).

It worked, but I hated every minute of it. And just when we thought that we had cracked it and she was going to sleep happily by herself, she began to wake twice a night and was unable to get back to sleep for hours. Exhausted after yet another night of playing musical rooms, and failing dismally with the usual tips of controlled crying or kiss- and-retreat, we decided to try co-sleeping - as the simple art of sleeping alongside your child is known.

The age-old practice of co-sleeping remains common in most traditional cultures. It is only in the past 200 years, and mainly in the West, that it is seen as normal for a baby to sleep alone. A recent survey carried out by Durham University's Parent-Infant Sleep Lab found that, even today, 46 per cent of British parents co-sleep at some stage of their children's lives. Yet, as I began to research it, I soon realised that in industrialised societies such as ours it is very controversial.

There are certainly benefits - longer and easier breast-feeding, closer bonds between mother and baby, even if bottle-feeding, and secure, independent children. But what about the pitfalls? Earlier this year, a five-week-old baby died from suffocation after sharing a bed with her mother. Last month, the coroner on the case urged the Government to issue clear warnings against co-sleeping.

Both the Department of Health (DH) and the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) advise against bed-sharing on the grounds that it can increase the risk of cot death and smothering. However, Attachment Parenting International, the National Childbirth Trust and the Royal College of Midwives all support parents who co-sleep, arguing that the benefits of responsible co-sleeping far outweigh the risks. In 2004, Unicef UK's Baby Friendly Initiative asked the DH to rewrite its leaflet, Reduce the Risk of Cot Death, saying: "Bed-sharing does not increase the risk of cot death in the absence of known risk factors (smoking, alcohol consumption, use of drugs which increase sleepiness, extreme tiredness)."

According to the Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirths and Deaths in Infancy (CESDI), 25 per cent of cot deaths occur in adult beds. Nearly all of these involve adults who smoke or have been drinking. The remaining 75 per cent occur in cots, on sofas, and other places where babies sleep.

What all professionals agree on, however, is that babies should sleep close to their parents during their first six months at least, when most vulnerable to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). This has been proven by a 70 per cent drop in cot deaths in the UK since this advice was first given in 1991. Tragically, it has also been proven by the development of SIDS (often the first cases of a previously unknown phenomenon) in societies that have replaced their traditional culture of co-sleeping with the Western ideal of cots and nurseries.

While there continues to be no medical explanation for SIDS, the US sleep expert James McKenna (and others in his field) says that we cannot ignore the evidence that where babies sleep close to their mothers as nature intended, they rarely die of SIDS. McKenna's research at his sleep laboratory shows that bed-sharing babies are more able to self-regulate temperature so are unlikely to overheat. They sleep less deeply than solitary babies, making them less prone to arousal deficiencies that may lead to cot deaths.

Faced with a tragedy such as the recent one, one can see why the DH and FSID have a blanket policy against co-sleeping. But then, should one also advise against driving with children, rather than using a car seat and driving safely? There is something about co-sleeping that doesn't seem to fit comfortably in our culture.

Even I, nearly a convert, have another pressing concern. If we invite Jemima into our bed, will she ever leave? This wasn't helped when, at my local tots' group, my guiltily confessed plans to co-sleep were greeted by a barrage of tut-tutting and head-shaking. "Knock that idea on the head right away! You're making a rod for your own back!"

Most parenting manuals talk of teaching your child to become independent by helping them to sleep alone. In Toddler Taming, Dr Christopher Green even admits to having put rope across his child's bedroom door. Unconvinced that this is a recipe for healthy independence, yet worried that Jemima would still be in our bed at 16, I turned to the co-sleeping guru Deborah Jackson, author of Three in a Bed, for advice. Jackson, who continues to research and write on the subject, told me how her three co-sleeping children did not cry in the night, nor rely on objects such as blankets or dummies. They all went on to sleep in their own rooms.

"The more security you give a baby, the more secure the child," Jackson says. She argues for the attachment theory: if the child is allowed to decide when they are ready to leave babyhood behind, they will be happy, independent children. Her research shows that they will usually ask for their own room by the time they are two, or respond well to gentle weaning if parents can display trust in their child's ability to cope with this.

Children who have slept with their parents are also less likely to experience regressive behaviour such as coming into the parents' bed when they are older. But Jackson recommends that you do not turn them away if they do. "Bedtime is when anxieties resurface. Inviting them back into bed for a few nights could help."

I have read enough to accept that Jemima should benefit from co-sleeping, and will eventually return to her own bed. But what about me? Will I get any more sleep? Jackson says: "We all had a fantastic night's sleep! No nightmares or night-waking. And babies who do wake in a bed with their parents can send themselves easily back to sleep without disturbing anyone." She argues that our obsession with routines and sleep training only results in an increasing percentage of children and adults with sleep problems.

Among my friends with children, co-sleeping would be considered quite mad by most, who would echo Sam, a mother of two: "I can't think of anything worse than sleeping with the kids. When they come into bed, we march them straight back again. Bedtime is our time together as a couple."

Which brings us to the question, what about a couple's sex life? This is where nearly all advocates of co-sleeping agree: if one partner is not comfortable with the idea of sharing the bed with the baby, and it is going to cause marital problems, don't do it. Both McKenna and Jackson believe that bed-sharing should unite the support network of a child, not tear it apart.

How did we get on? The first night, we didn't get a wink of sleep - Jemima thought Christmas had come early. But a month on, we're no longer exhausted, and my husband appreciates the extra time with his daughter. It is not, however, always as peaceful as Jackson describes. Jemima hasn't learnt the adult bedtime etiquette that babies apparently acquire if they co-sleep from birth, and so sits up and laughs in the middle of the night, before rolling on top of us for a cuddle. Maybe we'll perfect the art with our next baby. If we can squeeze in one more.

Need to know

Unicef and FSID advice for parents who sleep with their babies:

The mattress should be firm, flat and clean

Avoid overheating - 16C-18C is the best room temperature

Sleep facing the baby

You should not share a bed with a baby if you (or any other person in the bed):

Are a smoker (no matter where or when you smoke)

Have been drinking alcohol

Have taken any drug or medication

Are unusually tired

You should never sleep with your baby on a sofa, waterbed, beanbag or sagging mattress

RESOURCES

Some useful websites:

www.babyfriendly.org.uk for more information on Unicef's guidelines for parents and professionals.

www.sids.org.uk/fsid/ for more information about cot death and baby safety.

www.attachmentparenting.org. Attachment Parenting International is a non-profit organisation that helps to found local support groups, and publishes educational and research materials for parents and professionals.

www.nd.edu/~jmckenn1/lab/ to find out more about James McKenna's research on sleep and SIDS in the States.

www.dur.ac.uk/sleep.lab/ is the site for Durham University's Parent-Infant Sleep Laboratory, where a team of researchers examines different aspects of infant sleep and night-time parenting.

FURTHER READING

Three in a Bed: The Benefits of Sleeping with your Baby by Deborah Jackson (Bloomsbury £7.99)

The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff (Penguin £8.99)

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