Infant sleep has become quite a thriving industry these days. I can’t even count the times I’ve heard other moms talking about “sleep training”, and this method or that method to get little ones to sleep on their own. I wish you could have seen what their faces looked like when I told them about “my method” for getting babies to sleep through the night. Like, how dare I respond to my baby’s cries with cuddles, or heaven forbid, cuddles in the parental bed. I’m doomed, now my baby will never learn to sleep alone, she’s going to be in our bed until college! Yet interestingly enough, neither social ideology nor wakeful babies have ever caused me lack of sleep. My babies have always slept snuggled up in-between the dear husband and I, and it’s always been as simple as that. Our choice to co-sleep wasn’t based on any fancy studies or fads, it was just what felt right to us…and how we got the most sleep. It was only recently that I came across some interesting studies with long-term evidence on the benefits of co-sleeping, and whether you co-sleep or not, I think this is interesting information every parent should consider…
There is a wealth of evidence that supports co-sleeping as an integral part of mother-infant bonding. Science now confirms what mother’s instinct has always told me- Nature prepares mothers and babies to commence their attachment immediately after birth. As soon as a natural birth takes place, hormones that are a part of the birthing process stay at high levels in the mother and baby’s bodies, and play a crucial role in forming the bond between mother and baby. Two of the major players in this hormonal cocktail are oxytocin, the hormone that creates bonds, and prolactin, often referred to as “the mothering hormone”. If this balance of hormones is allowed to function immediately after birth through skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby, they are exquisitely and chemically primed to fall in love with each other.
Fortunately, whatever the birthing experience and moments just after turn out to be, nature allows more than a single chance to cement the foundation for a loving relationship, and strengthen the bonding process. Learning to love is an on-going process for mother & baby, and hormones continue to play an important role day and night. For example, as a mother breastfeeds her baby she receives doses of the hormones prolactin (which has a calming effect on both mom and baby) and oxytocin (which stimulates the milk ejection reflex). Endorphins (pleasure hormones) are also released during breastfeeding which promote bonding & encourage the mother to continue breastfeeding. The endorphins are also transferred through the mother’s milk to her baby, giving the child a sense of contentment as he or she breastfeeds. Since prolactin levels are highest during the night, it makes sense to consider that when a mother is close to her infant at night, it may elevate the love she feels for her baby. Perhaps without pressure to teach babies to sleep through the night as soon as possible, mothers could appreciate nighttime breastfeeding as an extra opportunity to bond with their babies. (Click here for more information about the benefits of breastfeeding at night.)
Research verifies that mothers and babies feel best when they are close to each other, however any mother who has snuggled her baby against her skin while nuzzling her face into her infants baby-fine hair doesn’t need a research study to tell her that. Mothers and babies are hardwired to the experience of togetherness, day and night! One argument in favor of continuous mother-baby togetherness maintains that infants get to know and bond with their mother through all of their senses- eye contact, the sound of the mother’s voice, the sweet taste of her milk, her touch and her smell. This bonding through complete “mother-baby togetherness” simply cannot fully take place when an infant is left to sleep alone in a crib at night, or worse, allowed to “cry it out” for the sake of “sleep training”.
Attachment, the process of learning to love, is a behavioral system that operates 24 hours a day. It doesn’t deactivate during sleep, where infants spend up to 60% of their time. Obstetrician Michael Odent states “It takes only the most elementary observation to see that a baby needs its mother even more during the night than in daylight. In the dark, the baby’s predominant sense- sight- is at rest. Instead, the baby needs to use its sense of touch through skin-to-skin contact, and its sense of smell.”
According to many experts, co-sleeping is a safe and even potentially life saving option, as long as parents provide a safe sleeping environment. Professor James McKenna at The University of Notre Dame has extensively studied mothers and babies both co-sleeping and sleeping separately. His research shows what co-sleeping mothers will attest to: When mothers and babies sleep together, they tend to get into the same sleep cycle.Even mothers who are deep sleepers were aware of their babies’ positions and would move to avoid lying on them or impending their breathing. Although babies spent more time in deep sleep and aroused more frequently (although not necessarily waking completely), their mothers actually got more sleep than mother-baby pairs sleeping in separate rooms. As a researcher of SIDS, Professor McKenna explains that these small transient arousals may lessen a baby’s susceptibility to some forms of SIDS, which are thought to be caused by failure to arouse from deep sleep to re-establish breathing patterns.
Professor McKenna advises, “From an evolutionary and biological perspective, proximity to parental sounds, smells, gases, heat and movement during the night is precisely what the human infant “expects”, and in our push for infant independence, we are forgetting that an infant’s biology cannot change quite as quickly as cultural child-care patterns.”
So for all of the co-sleeping mamas out their who are enjoying precious snuggles, and sharing sleep with their little ones, the research is affirming:
- Touch and proximity are essential parts of bonding.
- The hormones that enhance bonding are most effective during nighttime breastfeeding.
- Continued breastfeeding maintains the release of hormones essential to mother-infant bonding.
- Co-Sleeping is safe, and can even help prevent SIDS
- Mothers and Babies benefit from being together and sleeping together!
So if despite the evidence, you too are getting crazy, confused looks from other moms (or family members), take comfort in knowing you are doing what’s best for you and your baby, and creating a lasting bond that will last a lifetime.
Have you ever been given funny looks from other moms for co-sleeping with your little one? I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts, as co-sleeping mamas, we need all the support we can get!Terri
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