Are we getting the right advice on co-sleeping? Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes is concerned some of the safety messages out there aren’t aligned with the reality of parenting.
Content warning: This post talks about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also known as Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy.
At about seven weeks pregnant with our first child, my husband and I went bed shopping. We walked around the store gazing at each other and running our hands along beds and trying to imagine our child in them.
“Can you imagine?” I said dreamily.
“When our babies wake in the morning at about 10am they’ll crawl into bed with us and snuggle up and we will all fall sleep together” I said, because maybe I had a fever and was delusional or something.
We needed to get a super king, my husband declared. Though we wouldn’t co-sleep of course. We would just want to be comfortable in the morning when our baby came into bed with us for cuddles.
I mean, if occasionally they came in for a quick cuddle because they were sick, we would need space too. But you didn’t bring a baby in bed with you. YOU NEVER BRING A BABY IN BED WITH YOU.
Reason one: We were repeatedly told bringing a baby into bed with you is more dangerous than leaving them in a raft made of bees in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Reason two: They will never sleep because they need to learn to sleep on their own.
I am pleased and reassured to know that many other parents were as naive as we were. That there were many soon-to-be parents who just had NO freakin’ idea (not even one solitary lonely idea).
I remember being astonished when, after our baby developed breathing issues, we were told to keep him in our room by our paediatrician. We had been told by countless (unqualified) people that they HAD to sleep on their own. It seemed the sooner you got your child out of your room the better, according to the many people who had many opinions. The fact that co-sleeping was part of my husband’s ancestry didn’t seem to matter either – New Zealand had an outright rejection of co-sleeping.
At three months old, our son was diagnosed with a respiratory condition and his medical team told us to always keep him close at night. He slept in bassinette beside us. When he’d cry I would reach my hand in and it would soothe him.
But when it came time to feed him, I would take him upstairs. I was terrified of falling asleep with him in our bed because every news report ever said that this would kill him. And these devastated mothers who lost their children to cot death were ALWAYS blamed. They were the centre of these news articles. I wanted to reach through the pages to them, to try to stem the tide of blame sent their way by awful commentators.
It seemed like the worst horror ever – what if I lost my baby and then got blamed for it because I had him in bed with me? The comments on every story about a baby dying always attacked the mother. They always had a coroner saying mothers should never co-sleep. “Mothers”.
Each night I would spend from 1am till 4am on the couch feeding him. I tried to watch TV and he fed on and on and on and on. I’d keep the lights low to encourage him to sleep. One night I woke. On the couch. Holding the baby. He was asleep, but was wedged between me and the couch. I burst into tears and rushed downstairs.
“What am I meant to do?” I sobbed to my husband. The baby cluster fed for hours – he wasn’t an efficient feeder because of his breathing condition. How was I meant to stay awake night after night after night?
My husband said he would sit up with me but it seemed absurd to have us both awake. We tried putting a chair in our room – I again fell asleep. This time my body jerked awake (I think) soon after I began to fold myself over his tiny frail body.
I began to get so anxious about falling asleep that I feel nauseous every time I fed. Even during the day my body seemed to tense up to keep me awake. “How do I maintain this?” I kept thinking.
My husband said we should wean, even though our baby was only three months old. I kept falling asleep and the baby wouldn’t settle unless he was on my boob. He was tiny so we needed to feed him as long as he’d stay on the boob.
Nowhere was there any advice on what to do. How do you get any sleep with a baby that will only sleep on you, or one who feeds all night, when they’re not allowed anywhere near your bed?
I was terrified of Cot Death. What mother isn’t? So night-time feeds were a nightmare. All of the news reports and Plunket approaches said the same thing – bed sharing causes it. Bed sharing will kill your child and it will be your fault.
One night, exhausted, I fell asleep with my baby in bed. I woke with a jolt – only to find the baby was comfortably feeding still. I tried to get up to get to my hard backed feeding chair (I’d chosen the most uncomfortable chair I could to keep awake) and in my sleep deprived state I careened into my writing desk holding the baby. I righted myself and fed for 45 minutes as my head ached. In the morning I saw I had a huge bump just above my eye – already the colour of a furious sky.
Enough, my husband said. He tried and tried and tried to get the baby to take a bottle. He sat up with me while I fed, trying to keep me awake as his eyes grew heavier. I woke in bed with the baby snuggled into me.
All roads led to the bed.
Finally I looked up “safe co-sleeping”. I found that many families co-slept. There were rules to ensure the safety of the babies. No booze. No smoking. No drugs. No heavy blankets. No pillows.
Everything changed from then on. The baby would feed and I would sleep. He gained weight. I gained weight having lost heaps from severe sleep deprivation.
When my second arrived, my first was still sometimes coming into bed but he soon stopped. We had a wahakura for the new baby and he slept in that between us. He was a more efficient feeder than my first but he has always woken often.
Despite waking often, I felt more rested than I did the first time around in that newborn period. And I was no longer putting my children at risk by following the coroner’s advice on co-sleeping.
Personally, I do believe that the advice put my kids at risk. Anecdotes aren’t helpful in parenting but I do believe that few people can sit for hours in a chair to feed their babies without falling asleep.
What would happen if advice was given on safe sleeping that also provided a breastfeeding mother with the ability to sleep too?
I do not know any mothers who were able to stay awake during long cluster feeds without it having an impact on their health and wellbeing – particularly their mental health. I’ve had many mums tell me they fell asleep on couches or floors, on chairs or even standing at benches. All were trying to avoid The Bed because that was apparently where the danger was.
I do not know any mothers who have never co-slept. I know many mothers who have lied to Plunket and their GPs to avoid being told off for co-sleeping.
So it begs the question: How many mothers aren’t getting access to safe co-sleeping advice because the coroner’s advice on co-sleeping is so unrealistic for so many families? What can be done to change it? What consideration is there on long-held cultural practices of co-sleeping? How much of that reaction is racist and a direct result of colonialism? Are we putting new mums at risk of post natal depression? Are we putting babies at risk by the blanket no co-sleeping rule? What about the studies that have shown co-sleeping can actually reduce the risk of SIDS? What do parents of chronically ill kids do when their paediatrician is telling them to co-sleep but Plunket and coroner rules are telling them not to?
There is much research on use of wahakura, and the safety of co-sleeping but you can basically find any study and interpret it the wrong way to make it fit your views.
I want to be open and say that I used KellyMom for advice for safe co-sleeping and that if you feel that not being in bed isn’t safe, then choose the option that feels safe. Take steps to create an environment that IS safe for your child.
Sometimes we are given advice that while well-intentioned and aimed at protecting babies doesn’t actually do so for us under our specific set of circumstances.
If you have a great sleeper who feeds efficiently, of course it’s easy to say that mothers who co-sleep or bed-share are irresponsible and you’d never do it.
The truth is that we are just mothers trying to do the safest thing that we can for our babies. Coronial advice is at odds with advice from the Ministry of Health that promotes breastfeeding. It is, like I imagine most advice from coroners, not based on the day-to-day reality of parenting for most parents.
Most parents co-sleep for at least part of the night. The most important thing is to do it safely. To keep babies safe of course, but also to keep mothers safe.
Is it possible to have this conversation and be realistic? Is it possible to also include mothers? Time will tell, but for now it seems like the antenatal whisper network is all that we have. And that doesn’t seem good enough when it comes to the safety of our whāea and our piripoho.
This content is entirely funded by Flick, New Zealand’s fairest power deal. In the past year, their customers saved $398 on average, which would buy enough nappies for months… and months. Please support us by switching to them right now.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.