The notion that cosleeping is something dangerous and a cause of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) has sadly become common in Western societies; but when you think about it logically and look at our history and human nature, this notion is completely absurd. Cosleeping is something so natural to all species and has been practised since the beginning of time.
All you have to do is look at photos of mammals cosleeping with their young to realise how natural it is. Not only do animals cosleep, but humans have also done so throughout history and STILL do in the majority of the world; in many countries it is the norm to have children sleep in the same room as the mother, and usually in the same bed. Just think about all those countries where people cannot even afford to have separate rooms.
W. M. Whiting reported that infants sleep in bed with their mothers in approximately two thirds of the 136 societies he sampled around the world, and in the remainder the babies were generally in the same room with their mothers. In a survey of 100 societies, American parents were the only ones to maintain separate quarters for their babies (Burton & Whiting) – Cultural Variation in Infant’s Sleeping Arrangements.
The idea of making children sleep alone is a relatively new concept and only in Western societies.
The Necessity of a Cot
When preparing for parenthood, one of the exciting parts of the pregnancy is going out and buying all the baby furniture and stuff that the baby will need. Even as someone who tries to remain aware of consumerism, I myself didn’t think to question this. I was aware that there is A LOT that is made and promoted as a ‘must have’ which actually isn’t at all necessary; I therefore tried to buy the minimum of what is actually needed. The cot however, was not something I even thought about… because it is a given, right, every baby needs a cot? I actually remember myself and my husband having a discussion about it; not that he was aware of cosleeping and suggesting it, but he was shocked at the price of the items and disappointed that I was buying them. I actually replied with ‘I know it’s expensive, sadly they can get away with charging a ridiculous price because people need it… a baby needs a bed so what can we do, not buy one?’ Now that we sleep as a family on two mattresses on the floor (by the way, we ended up selling our cot AND our travel cot, both unused), I think back and laugh at how ridiculous I sounded!
But that is how we are conditioned to think in the system we live in; we truly believe that it is how it should be and cannot think outside the box. Forget thinking outside the box, we don’t even question how it was before these things were invented and how we did things throughout the history of human existence. We are constantly bombarded by the advertisements of said products and the allure of having a lovely looking nursery for a new baby. We have become so used to the system we live in, that we don’t even question if it was always this way, and if there can be a better alternative.
So when was the Cot Actually Invented? And why has it Become the Norm to Use it?
If you Wikipedia ‘cot’ it tells you, an infant bed (commonly called a cot in British English, and, in American English, a crib or cradle, or far less commonly, stock) is a small bed especially for infants and very young children. Infant beds are a historically recent development intended to contain a child capable of standing. The cage-like design of infant beds restricts the child to the bed… infant beds are commonly seen in countries affected by Westernization, employed by the majority of parents as an alternative to sharing a bed or due to cultural norms.
The cot wasn’t even invented until the 19th Century. Prior to this, it was the norm for children to sleep on the floor with the rest of the family. The bassinet (now more commonly known as a Moses basket), was first invented to raise babies off the floor for health reasons; which then developed into the cot (eventually with higher sides to prevent children from falling out once they were able to stand). Despite these health reasons no longer being an issue, the use of a cot became more and more common in Western societies.
One of the reasons for this is because people realised that there was a lot of money to be made from the sale of a cot; and not only from the cot itself, but also the mattress and all of the paraphernalia that goes with it (the ‘cute’ bedding, the bumpers, cot mobiles, etc.) If you price up all of these items, you will be shocked at the amount it all costs. Moreover, there are endless types of cots that are produced, with higher and higher price tags (such as fancy ones that ‘rock the baby to sleep so you don’t have to’)… now they are only short of feeding the baby too!
Another big reason why objects like this have become more common is for convenience, and the fact that in Western societies we are becoming more individualistic and self-centred, especially in middle-upper classes. We are continuously told as parents to put our own needs first and that babies have to adapt to us, rather than the other way round. We have this strange notion that babies ‘must learn to be independent’ and that we shouldn’t allow them to ‘manipulate’ us. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘it’s important for the baby to learn to sleep by himself as early as possible’ (cue eye roll)! One particularly strange feature of middle-class family life is the way we train our children to sleep. “Go to your room,” we tell even very young children, “and stay there all night.” We have invented elaborate techniques to support this supposedly essential aspect of child development, implementing them at great emotional cost to all parties involved… as industrial wealth spread through the Western economies, so did a sense that individual privacy — felt most intently at night — was a hallmark of “civilisation”… Ensuring privacy at night was a matter of defining proper “whiteness” or “Europeanness.” While reformers endorsed solitary sleep as healthful and moral, they noted that “savages” slept collectively — and this practice was somehow to blame for underdevelopment of the non-Western world – LA Times.
Firstly, why is it important for babies to ‘learn’ to be independent so early on? Is it because the longer it takes for them to be independent the less likely it becomes for them to eventually be independent; or is it actually because we are becoming more impatient and demanding our own space and our old lives back? Secondly, do you really think that the longer children cosleep, the less likely they are to eventually go into their own beds? I don’t know of any teenagers or adults that still wish to sleep with their parents, do you? And thirdly, does it really mean better sleep for everyone? Not if you are breastfeeding or have normal maternal anxieties, thus want to be able to check on your baby with ease. It is actually proven to be much easier for those that bed share and thus everyone gets better sleep.
‘Self-Soothing/Settling and CIO’
There seems to be this crazy common idea in Western societies that babies need to ‘learn’ to ‘self soothe’ (which supposedly leads to independence). But lifelong self-sufficiency and/or confidence (and, trust, for that matter) has absolutely nothing to do with the age at which an infant puts its self back to sleep without its parent or loved one, i.e. to “self soothe”. All children eventually learn how to put themselves back to sleep. What is really being pushed on parents here is the arbitrary social idea and/or judgement that the earlier the infant does not need intervention the better (in some way for the infant and eventual child and adult) and this concept is inappropriately used as a weapon often by false claims suggesting that if an infant or child cannot by some pre-determined age “self-soothe” it never will, or that something is either wrong with them, and is in need of repair, or that their parents are deficient (for not setting “boundaries”)… these judgements are social in form and nature and have no scientific merit or meaning at all. No other people on the planet other than those from Western industrialised societies worry about such differences between children. Our culture has carefully constructed this as a concern – University of Notre Dame.
Moreover, when parents believe that they have managed to sleep train their baby and the baby has ‘learnt’ to ‘self soothe’, this is not actually the case. Through sleep training you can condition a baby not to cry out for attention and go to sleep without parental input fairly easily; however this behaviour is not indicative of a baby who is calm, soothed or settled. Self-soothing is a developmental stage, a skill that infants gain as they grow older. What is really happening? In most cases something is happening on a very basic primal level. Let’s go back to the hind-brain and the fight or flight response. What happens when those stress hormones reach such a level that they are toxic yet you can’t take flight……..or fight…..another ‘F’ comes in, this time it’s F for ‘Freeze’. You freeze all activity in order to try to conserve homoeostasis, or more simply put – conserve life. Dr Sears calls this ‘Shutdown Syndrome’… if parents believe their babies are ‘soothed’ and calmed, they naturally relax and think all is OK – Sarah Ockwell-Smith.
Unfortunately, this idea of babies being able to ‘self soothe’ has led to the acceptance, justification and even promotion of the ‘cry it out’ (CIO) method (when a baby is left alone to cry until they fall asleep). No matter how much this is justified in our society, it is emotional neglect. The NSPCC defines neglect as the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic needs (which includes emotional needs) and is the most common form of child abuse… crying is the most powerful way that a baby can communicate. It’s also the only way of letting you know that something’s making them unhappy – NSPCC . Babies don’t just cry for no reason, despite what some people may say! Scientific research has confirmed that allowing a baby to CIO has the same effects as starving a baby, not giving a baby enough attention and not providing the baby with contact and affection. When a baby is left to cry, the stress hormone cortisol is released. Margot Sunderland, director of education at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, says moving children to their own beds from a few weeks old, even if they cry in the night, has been shown to increase the flow of cortisol. [High cortisol levels are associated with such health hazards as high blood pressure, hypertension, high vasocongestion, headaches, belly aches, indigestion, acid reflux, decreased attachment, decreased bonding, problems with breastfeeding, failure to thrive, decreased IQ, slow development, and social distrust.] – DrMomma.org.
Cortisol can elevate the blood pressure and the heart rate, increase blood sugar, and interrupt digestive and kidney functions… continuously elevated stress hormone levels in infancy from a stressful environment are associated with permanent “negative” effects on brain development… an infant not only suffers from elevated stress hormones, but also receives less benefit from Oxytocin surges and other positive biochemical influences. The biochemical environment imposed on an infant’s brain during critical development stages affects the anatomy and functioning of the brain permanently. A poor biochemical environment results in less desirable emotional, behavioural, and intellectual abilities for the rest of a child’s life – The Natural Child Project.
Studies have proven that leaving babies to cry and not responding to them causes a lot of long term damage. With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted – that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation – Psychology Today.
If you are interested in reading more about cortisol and its damages, there is a great article written by Evolutionary Parenting.
There seems to be this belief amongst many parents, and their parents, that babies ‘need to learn to be independent’ or that showing them ‘too much’ attention is spoiling them. Firstly, babies cannot be spoiled with love and attention, it is their basic needs in order to grow and develop the best they can; and secondly, it is impossible for a baby to ‘learn’ to be independent at such a young age, they will do so when they are developmentally capable and ready.
In fact, studies have shown that children who form a better attachment with their parents early on end up feeling more secure, confident and becoming more independent and wanting their own space when they are ready for it. When a human infants inherent need for contact and proximity (reassurance through touch, parent directed vocalisations, emotional support) are met by parents early in their lives rather than becoming “dependent” as is always suggested in the popular press the reverse is actually true: that is, early dependence leads to early independence and self-sufficiency and, perhaps even, enhanced self –confidence – University of Notre Dame.
Contrary to the belief that everyone would get better sleep if the baby ‘learns’ to sleep alone, cosleeping actually means better sleep for everyone; as
1. The baby doesn’t need to cry in order to get the mother’s attention during the night when he wakes up for a feed. This means less stress for everyone as cortisol levels are not raised, and the second parent is also less likely to be woken if the baby doesn’t cry (as the mother usually senses the baby stirring for milk).
2. The mother does not need to get up out of bed to take the baby out of the cot to feed and then put the baby back in the cot once she has finished feeding, keeping the mother awake for so long. There is also the risk of the mother falling asleep while sitting up while feeding the baby, and thus suffocating the baby (which is ironic, as this is the reason we are told not to cosleep). However, if cosleeping is done safely, it means that there would be no chance of the baby being suffocated by the mother, as she can feed while lying down and continue to sleep. Surely that’s a win-win for all?!
If you are interested, there is a whole article written about feeding while lying down in Women’s Health Today.
I can also personally vouch for this. Our baby has never cried when he has woken up (even if he wakes up on his own now that he is older, he knows that we are in the next room) and I strongly believe that is down to us cosleeping since birth; he always knows that we are there and wakes up with a massive smile on his face every time (which just melts your heart and makes it all totally worth it!). Whenever he is unsettled or having a bad dream, he reaches out for me during the night and just falls back to sleep when he feels me beside him, or he remains asleep while searching for me to feed!
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
Cosleeping is not recommended in Western societies because of the fear that it ‘may’ cause SIDS; the SIDS that they still ‘have no explanation for’. Yet the irony is that SIDS rates are higher in Western societies, and very rare in societies that DO cosleep.
For example, co-sleeping is a big part of Japanese parenting, just like how it is perceived the world over as one of the most natural thing. Approximately 90 percent of the world’s parents co-sleep with their babies. Asian, particularly Japanese parents take the lead – WellBeingKid. Yet, Japan, another industrialised country, not only has one of the lowest infant mortality rates (less than 3 infants per 1000 live births compared with around 7 for the United States), but one of the lowest SIDS rates in the world (between .2 and .3 babies per 1000 live births compared with approximately .5 per 1000 infants for the US). The Japan SIDS Family Organisation reported that SIDS rates continue to decline in Japan as maternal smoking approaches practically 0, and exclusive breastfeeding reaches around 70-75 %. In fact, one report shows that as bedsharing and breastfeeding increased and as maternal smoking decreased, SIDS rates decreased. This suggests yet again that it is not necessarily bedsharing, but how it is practised, that can be dangerous (James J. McKenna) –The Natural Child Project.
As mentioned previously, the SIDS rates in Western societies are far higher than the majority of the world, where cosleeping is very common and natural. When the studies that have been released are looked into further, majority of the SIDS cases have been due to cot death. A baby usually suffocates or has an underlying condition that the parents are not aware of, because the mother is not around to keep an eye on the baby while they are sleeping. So many parents now leave their babies in the cot alone in a separate room during naps, while they go off and do other stuff. As CIO and ‘sleep training’ have also become more common in Western societies, babies are also left alone all night and not responded to when they are hungry; and if there is a problem with the baby then it is unnoticed by the parents, as they are not around to keep an eye on the baby.
It is very important to note that the cases where babies have suffocated from sharing a bed with a parent, have been because the parent has consumed alcohol, drugs or is a smoker. Unfortunately, instead of Western societies talking about the benefits of cosleeping and bedsharing, and teaching parents how to do it safely (i.e. encouraging them not to drink or smoke and sharing safe sleeping positions), the government and mainstream media have created misinformed and misinterpreted scaremongering about cosleeping. The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) and the department say categorically that the safest place for a baby is in a cot. Babies must sleep alone… This message was strongly repeated by the foundation on the publication of a study in 2009 by the British Medical Journal which FSID itself funded… yet Peter Fleming, professor of infant health and developmental physiology in Bristol, one of the study authors, was appalled by the misinterpretation, as he sees it, of the paper in the media. “I really felt quite uncomfortable about it. My view is that the positive message of this study is that it says don’t drink or take drugs and don’t smoke, particularly for breastfeeding mothers. We did not find any increased risk from bedsharing. It is a very different message from the one the media picked up.” Moreover, Joyce Epstein, director of FSID, says this is too complicated. “If you can get people’s attention for more than three seconds you would like to give the whole story every time, but at what point do you lose everybody?” she says. From their perspective, the simple direct message – put your baby to sleep in a cot near the bed, not in the bed, is the key – Guardian.
So, instead of giving the actual facts and reasons, and taking the time to explain and teach parents the safest and most beneficial way, the FSID have decided that it is easier to just tell parents to put their babies alone in a cot. Yet the rates in Western societies continue to remain high and no one questions the fact that more than half of the SIDS incidents are in cots.
Unfortunately, as my husband once put it, ‘no one is going to question the parents of a baby that has just died’. As it is such a sensitive subject and as the parents of babies who die are grieving, it would be highly unethical and inappropriate for them to be questioned and for it to be investigated. Many cases that are put down to ‘SIDS’, are often in fact neglect, or as mentioned previously due to drugs, cigarette or alcohol consumption. After all, drugs (including legal drugs such as medication for Postnatal Depression, etc.), cigarettes and alcohol are some of the most consumed and profitable products in this system. If parents were told not to smoke or consume alcohol it would probably create a big outcry. It all comes back down to a change in attitude in Western societies to parenting; convenience and putting our own needs first.
Benefits of Cosleeping
Contrary to common belief, there are far more benefits of cosleeping than there are of babies sleeping alone in a cot. There are several proven health benefits for cosleeping, such as significant improvements in heart rate, rhythm, blood pressure and body temperature of both the baby and the parent. Dr. James J. McKenna, a professor of anthropology, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioural Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, and world renowned expert of infant sleep, says, ‘when my son was born, I discovered I could manipulate his breathing by changing the speed of my breath, as if we had to be in sync with each other. My research later confirmed that the breathing of the mother and infant are regulated by the presence of each other — the sounds of inhalation and exhalation, the rising and falling of their chests, and the carbon dioxide being exhaled by one and inhaled by the other expediting the next breath!’ – Huffingtonpost. This also means that a mother is more likely to respond to her baby if the baby is in trouble or having any breathing difficulties, etc. thus actually reducing the chance of SIDS.
Dr. William Sears says, ‘I have thoroughly researched this common concern and written two books on the subject, I feel that I can confidently advise on this subject. In the SIDS book, you’ll find more than 250 scientific references to support the information provided on sleep and breathing patterns, and safe sleeping arrangements. Also, my wife and I co-slept with every one of our eight babies and I have advocated the practice throughout my 35 years of being a paediatrician. I’ve come to the conclusion that co-sleeping, if practiced wisely and safely, can actually lower the risk of SIDS, and here’s why: co-sleeping helps your baby rouse himself, co-sleeping is a common practice worldwide and co-sleeping warnings are based on imprecise science.’ (If you follow the link you will see further information on each of these reasons) – Parenting.com.
Moreover, a point that always rings true and makes so much sense to me: as adults do we not feel lonely when we don’t have a loved one by our side? Do we not feel content and happy when we sleep next to someone that we can snuggle up to? Why is it that it’s acceptable for adults to have a sleeping companion but not for babies – who, are completely new to the world, vulnerable, scared and have no idea what is going on? Just put yourself in a baby’s shoes and imagine how you would feel left alone in a cold, dark, intimidating cot, especially after nine months in a familiar, warm, safe, comfortable environment, constantly hearing your mother’s heartbeat and voice!
There are so many more benefits to cosleeping (such as brain development, attachment, etc.) and I have rambled on enough, so I will just leave you with an article, 10 reasons to cosleep
…and these two images: