Is bedsharing a bad habit? The co-sleeping conundrum of a weary mama

If there is a hotter topic than infant sleep in the parenting world, I don’t know what it is.

I remember back before I had children when I would proclaim I was “tired”. You know, those times when you’ve had a big working week or socialising (pardon me – educating yo’self) at university; perhaps you pretended to study for a few hours Friday evening, then got loose on Saturday night with the girls busting waaaay too many pop n’ locks on the D-Floor… and then, AND THEN your boyfriend rudely wakes you for brunch at 9am on Sunday (NINE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING ON A SUNDAY?! WHO ARE YOU, YOU SUNRISE WORSHIPPING DEMON WITH A PENCHANT FOR POACHED EGGS?!)

Remember those days? You thought you were so freaking tired, so you just crawled into bed that afternoon and went to sleep for 12 hours and then woke up not so tired anymore. The End (cue insane laughter here).

We can certainly get ourselves all worked up about our babies and their sleep. And for good reason obviously, as our quality of sleep is directly impacted by theirs. Our time in dreamland dictates so much about the rest of our lives… our mood, our focus, our immune function and ability to heal, even our physical coordination (anyone else covered in bruises just from walking around the house? Who put that dining table there?!)

It’s pretty simple. Our lives are rocked at their very foundation when we are sleep deprived.

So many of you commented on sleep related challenges last week on #witsendwednesday, but one first time mama struck a chord with me because I related to her concerns when I had my firstborn.

She says:

“I’m in need of a serious pep talk. My 10 month old is sleeping so badly. Waking almost hourly. She’s been particularly needy since being ill recently and teething. She ends up in our bed every night! I’m fine with this most of the time and usually so is my husband, but last night he got frustrated and he really upset me by basically saying that I’m enabling her, that she hasn’t slept through the night in her cot once and it’s my fault for always bringing her to bed to breastfeed and sleep. He apologised for his remark the following day, but now I’m doubting myself. I just need to be reminded that my little one isn’t broken and that I’m not a terrible mama…” 

My heart hurts a little for her, because I feel sentences such as “I’m fine with this most of the time” and “now I’m doubting myself” really give us the key to her predicament. Quite often, I think many of our concerns about things to do with our babies stem from what others in our lives tell us or what we read we “should” be doing with our cherubs. Particularly as a first time mama, it can be the hardest thing in the world to trust our instincts and roll with what feels right to us and the needs of our babes.

There are many schools of thought in the infant sleep world, but let me hit you with something here. Sadly and of great concern, most do not take into account the actual developmental needs of the infant. Can you believe that? People are out there banging on about how to “train” babies to sleep a certain way, without understanding their neurological and emotional needs. And the worst part? They are charging you money for it too. It makes my blood boil.

But hey, let’s be productive here. Instead, lets actually look at what we do know, from people who are legitimately in the know. And guess what, you guys – this you get for free 🙂

Anyhow, back to the mama above. It sounds like she favours a gentle and connected approach to parenting her daughter both during the day and through the night. She has identified 3 important factors: a) that her baby is 10 months old; b) she has recently been unwell and teething (UGH, TEETH! AM I RIGHT?); and c) her usual nighttime situation with bub involves co-sleeping, for much, if not all of the night.

Firstly, let’s take a squiz at what’s happening at 10 months old. You may or may not be aware that this is the time in infant development when separation anxiety reaches an all time high. As frustrating as it can be, your baby crying whenever you are out of sight, or god forbid whenever you dare remove your boob from their mouth, is completely normal. By now, they have mostly grasped the concept of “object permanence“, an important milestone reflecting a baby’s understanding that when something is out of sight, it still exists.

So when you walk out of their room at bedtime and they become distressed, it is because their brain now registers that you have left them alone and are off doing something awesome without them (ok, maybe I’m embellishing a tad).

Funnily enough, as parenting expert and author Sarah Ockwell-Smith explains, these behaviours are actually a positive sign that parents are doing a good job. She states that “although it may not feel like it, it’s a great indication that – in time – the baby will be confident and independent”.

It is important to emphasise that this happens “in time”, as attempting to train a baby into these skills can be potentially damaging. A significant reason to allow them to reach these abilities themselves, rests on the fact that the neocortex, the part of the brain needed to accomplish such skills is not even developed yet! The neocortex is often deemed our “thinking brain” and doesn’t fully develop until into our 20’s, believe it or not (remember those risky things you did in high school?)

So to clarify, at 10 months old a baby has no capacity for high-order thinking, only able to engage their hindbrain (the part where the “fight or flight” response comes from) and their limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for emotions). Surely then, it seems ridiculous to assume they will be able to rationalise and analyse a situation like being left alone during the night? That if they experience distress, they’ll devise a way to calm their emotions and make sense of them?

Is it just me, or could it a bit of a stretch to think they’ll just roll back over, close their eyes and think, “oh, mum and dad must be too tired to come and cuddle me. It’s a bummer, but I’ll just head on back to the land of nod and see them in the morning – no biggie!”

The take home message here is, as humans we need all of the parts of our brain, fully developed, in order to ‘self soothe’. Our baby’s are incapable of doing it for themselves. See here for an in-depth article on the myth of self-settling, backed up by reputable studies.

Ockwell-Smith’s book, The Gentle Sleep Book: For Calm Babies, Toddlers & Pre-Schoolers is one I highly recommend. It is underpinned by current research and covers loads of important and relevant info to help understand the developing infant and their sleep, while also offering highly practical and easy to implement suggestions to get through tricky times.

Concerning ourselves with the relationship between our parenting choices and the impact on the neural development of our children is pretty darn important if we want to look at potential ramifications for adulthood. If raising mini-humans who are in touch with and can effectively manage emotions is a goal for parents, Dr Sarah Buckley, family physician and author of Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, affirms the importance of consistent parental emotional love and support – particularly when our infants are in distress.

Photo Credit: National Institutes of Health (NIH) Flickr via Compfight cc

She explains that when we are responsive to our baby’s needs, their immature brain develops pathways which are linked to how they perceive relationships.

You may be familiar with the neuro-scientific principle, “cells that fire together, wire together”? This literally means that if a baby is upset and then subsequently experiences a gentle and loving response from their caregiver, the relevant neurons in their brain will all fire at once. When this series of events occur repeatedly, the particular neurons are then linked together by connections, called synapses.

Essentially, this pattern creates a message to the brain saying “when I cry, someone comes to me and comforts me”.

Dr Daniel Siegel, Neuropsychiatrist and author of books such as The Whole Brain Child, refers to this simply as “human connections shaping neural connections”.  As you can imagine, when a baby receives comfort and love when they reach out for it, optimal brain development for lifelong emotionally healthy relationships takes place.

Therefore, the actions of our mum in question can simply be seen as “responding” to her daughter’s need for comfort and security. In fact, they are directly impacting on her wee babe’s perception of whether she is safe and can expect someone to come for her when she needs them.

Pretty big right? So, the way we respond to our babies play an enormous role in how their brains will forever perceive not only their relationship with you as their parent, but with all human interaction. I’m not sure about you, but this mother sounds like she’s doing a beautiful job at nighttime parenting.

Additionally, I think it’s pretty important to acknowledge that this family have been engaging in co-sleeping practices, which appear to have been working for them up until recently when dad became concerned that perhaps his daughter should be sleeping in her cot. We obviously don’t have the full picture, but it sounds like bringing bub into bed has been an easy way to settle her, by offering the breast and helping her fall back asleep, while allowing mama to stay horizontal!

Is this a problem then? Looking at the work of people like James McKenna, Ph.D., Director of the Mother-Baby Behavioural Sleep Laboratory of the University of Notre Dame and author of Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-sleeping, it seems the positives greatly outweigh the negatives if both parents are happy with the arrangement and it is done safely. I won’t go into the nitty gritty in this post, but you can read more from McKenna on the biological imperatives of co-sleeping here.

On the issue of whether sleeping with your baby will delay their independence, McKenna refers to studies which actually demonstrate the opposite. He notes the importance of understanding that children who co-sleep with their parents routinely from birth may take longer to transition into solitary sleeping; however the trade off is that in the long term, research has shown that these children tend to develop higher levels of resilience and self-sufficiency, be comfortable being alone when necessary, be effective problem solvers, and make friends easily. Sounds like attributes we all wish to foster in our children, am I right?

Finally, as a breastfeeding mother, this mama might find guidance from International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Meg Nagle (AKA The Milk Meg), super helpful.

Her book, Boobin’ all day… Boobin’ all night: A Gentle Approach to Sleep for Breastfeeding Families draws from a wide range of research and is a fab resource for parents who want to maintain a positive breastfeeding relationship while enjoying maximum snooze time.

As well as chapters on such things as: combining routines and feeding on demand, gentle parenting even when it is giving you the shits, managing the needs of a sleep-hating baby, etc., Nagle talks a lot about the problems she perceives with our current cultural and social attitudes towards breastfeeding and sleep. She focusses on reframing pressures we might feel to have our babies sleeping through the night by a particular stage, into an appreciation of breastfeeding being the biological norm and the positives  of maintaining a breastfeeding relationship for as long as possible.

She acknowledges that this might not be a priority for every family, but in sharing research and information outlining the benefits, provides a great platform for understanding how our mindset can support us to do so if we are committed to it. However, if weaning gently and with respect to your baby is on your current radar, this book also provides some great tips towards achieving this.

After all this, I’m feeling like our #witsendwednesday mama needs a big ol’ hug, some words of encouragement that she is doing a wonderful job, and to be assured that her baby is certainly not broken. After assessing where her baby is at developmentally and reflecting on her parenting decisions accordingly, it seems that current research supports her responsive approach and indicates  she could be setting her daughter up for a secure, independent and emotionally healthy future.

Obviously this is only ONE aspect of parenting in the crazy minefield of constant choices we are faced with, but if you can relate to this family’s current challenge, hopefully it has provided some food for thought and avenues for further investigation.

If you are keen to pursue some more evidence-based reading in the areas of normal infant sleep and gentle practices, cosleeping, and breastfeeding, then please also check out the Evolutionary Parenting Blog, Pinky McKay and Elizabeth Pantley for starters.

I’m sure this won’t be the last time I harp on about infant sleep. It continues to present challenges to modern families who prioritise the wellbeing and optimal development of their baby, yet seek some kind of balance in the hope they don’t have to completely abandon their individual needs for how ever many years it takes until their babe figures out how to sleep on their own.

At least we can be assured that credible research supports being responsive to our babies’ nighttime needs. Often, our instincts as mama’s – regardless of how stinkin’ tired we are – are loud and clear: go to your baby, comfort your baby, help your baby to sleep. Sometimes though, we think we need to engage in methods to “train” our babies to sleep, just to simply survive.

I hear you. Sleep deprivation is torturous and can lead us down a slippery slope when in comes to our health and wellbeing.

Mums: we need to seek out our own support. Educate ourselves on infant brain development. Decide what we want for our children as adults, and how we can foster that NOW. From that point of understanding, hopefully we can feel more confident to follow our baby’s lead and respond in ways that feel instinctively right, despite the monstrous black bags taking up real estate under our eyeballs. When that fails. Wine.

In the meantime, let us keep mocking those cute “tired” people who have not embarked on the adventure of pro-creation. Then go and give your little sleep-thieves a snuggle, knowing there will come a time where they’ll be teenagers and you’ll be dealing with a whole new set of challenges!

Yours in hot caffeinated beverages,

The PsychED Mama x

 

*****

 

References/Resource citations:

Buckley, S. J. (2009). Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctors Guide to Natural Childbirth and Gentle Early Parenting Choices. New York: Crown Publishing

McKenna, J. J. (2012). Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping. Washington: Platypus

McLeod, S. A. (2015). Sensorimotor Stage. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/sensorimotor.html

Nagle, M. (2015). Boobin’ all day… Boobin’ all night: A Gentle Approach to Sleep for Breastfeeding Families. (Self-published)

Ockwell-Smith, S. (2015). The Gentle Sleep Book: For Calm Babies, Toddlers & Pre-schoolers. London: Piatkus

Siegel, D. J. & Payne Bryson, T. (2012). The Whole Brain Child. Victoria: Scribe

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