Safe bed-sharing gives breastfeeding mothers more sleep – by Diana West IBCLC

There’s no question scientifically that breastfeeding is very important to both a child’s and mother’s lifelong health. But goals are one thing — real life is another.

Like many new parents, Monica discovered that her biggest breastfeeding obstacle happened at night. She’d put her baby Ryan to sleep alone in the crib like she thought she was supposed to. Then he’d cry. She’d drag herself out of bed, pick up her screaming baby, sit down to nurse, try to stay awake, put him back in the crib, stagger back to bed, and hope, hope, hope he stayed asleep for at least two hours, which he usually didn’t. This got old fast. After only a few days, she was beyond exhausted. Eventually, out of pure desperation and sleep deprivation, she brought Ryan into her bed and lo and behold, they both got more sleep. Monica had just discovered the age-old secret to successful breastfeeding at night: bedsharing.

Bed-sharing works so well because breastfeeding mothers and babies are hardwired to be together during vulnerable sleep periods. Babies have higher stress levels and less stable heart rates and temperatures when they’re separated from their mothers. Mothers feel stress when they’re separated from their babies. When they bedshare, the baby’s happier and doesn’t have to cry to get the mother’s attention, and she doesn’t have to get out of bed — she just latches the baby on and maybe even falls back to sleep. She automatically lies on her side facing the baby with her lower arm up and knee bent. This creates a protected “cove” that keeps her from rolling toward the baby and prevents anyone else from rolling into that space. The baby stays oriented toward her breasts in that safe cove, away from pillows. Their sleep-wake cycles synchronize so that they both have low-stress, low-level arousals through the night. This instinctive and mutually beneficial behavior probably explains why research has shown that the new mothers who get the most sleep are the ones who breastfeed exclusively and bedshare.

Whether from desperation or convenience, or because it’s simply so delicious, two thirds of breastfeeding mothers do bedshare at some point. Yet one of the most intense messages new mothers hear is to never, never sleep with their babies in an adult bed.

So they often feel guilty, worrying that they’re sacrificing their baby’s safety to get more sleep. Many don’t tell their doctors when they’re asked where the baby sleeps. And who can bear to tell Grandma the beautiful crib she gave them isn’t being used?

Night feeds, the reality

“Never Bedshare” sounds great on paper (or billboards). But the public health agencies promoting it forget that babies need to be fed at night. And they don’t take into account that breastfeeding releases hormones that makes mothers feel sleepy during the feeding. So where are mothers supposed to breastfeed their babies at night? They never say.

Mothers are left struggling to find a place to feed the baby where they can doze during the nursing. Thinking that it’s too dangerous to bring the baby into their own bed, research has shown that almost half of mothers sleep with their babies on sofas, upholstered chairs, or recliners at some point. But that’s an incredibly risky place for suffocation because of all the crevices and padding, and it’s not usually comfortable enough for more than a night or two. Another common solution is to “train” the baby to sleep longer, but child development research has found is stressful for both babies and parents and tends to be ineffective in the long run. Or some mothers use formula at night so the baby will sleep longer or someone else can feed the baby, even though using formula in itself is a SIDS risk. Any of these “solutions” can cause the breastfeeding relationship to be cut short.

Risk factors and the ‘safe sleep seven’

What many breastfeeding mothers (and doctors!) don’t realize is that while the Never Bedshare warnings are a one-size-fits-all message, not all babies are at equal risk. Maternal-infant sleep researchers have found that there are seven main risk factors for SIDS and suffocation: 1) adult smoking, 2) a caregiver under the influence of alcohol or other sedatives, 3) formula-feeding, 4) a baby with a health problem that prevents normal arousal from sleep, 5) baby sleeping on his stomach, 6) an overheated baby, and 7) a baby sleeping on a surface with gaps, crevices, or pillowy objects. La Leche League International (, the world’s oldest and largest volunteer breastfeeding organization, calls these seven bedsharing risk factors “The Safe Sleep Seven.”

If a breastfeeding mother doesn’t smoke or go to bed sedated, and her healthy, not overdressed baby is sleeping by her side on his back on a safe surface, then she and her baby meet “The Safe Sleep Seven” and they are at extremely low risk for either SIDS or suffocation.

And even the researchers who warn against bedsharing agree that by about four months, bedsharing by any responsible, nonsmoking adult is as safe as having your baby sleep separately in a bassinet or crib.

Teaching parents about The Safe Sleep Seven and how to make their bed surface safe for bed-sharing is the most effective way to protect babies from SIDS and suffocation. This is true even if they don’t ever plan to bedshare, because a pre-planned bed beats a sofa or recliner every time. It’s also simple childproofing. Most parents go to great lengths to protect outlets and cabinets because they know accidents can happen, no matter how watchful they are. Not every mother and baby can bedshare safely, but it’s still safer to for every mother to make her bed as safe as possible just in case.

For breastfeeding mothers and babies who meet The Safe Sleep Seven, bedsharing can be a wonderful way to enjoy a cuddly and better night’s sleep together, confident that their danger risk is about as low as possible. And bedsharing means it’s a whole lot more likely that they’ll breastfeed successfully for lifelong health. A winning goal, indeed.

This guest blog was first published on Huffington Post. It is reprinted here with permission from Diana West, IBCLC, Director of Media Relations for La Leche League International, author, lactation consultant.

Diana is coauthor of  the La Leche League books,’The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding’ and ‘Sweet Sleep-night-time and nap-time strategies for the breastfed family’.

co-sleepingDiana WestInfant SleepNight feedsnight time breastfeedingSafe Co-sleepingSafe Sleep SevenSIDSSIDS and Bed-Sharingsleep trainingSweet Sleep book
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  • Rose

    I wish I did this when I had my son. My mother in law kept pushing me to not sleep with the baby after feedings (because she’s afraid of suffocating the baby). So in turn, I did loose a lot of sleep and was very cranky. I would have felt better to have my son close to me. I think that it would have helped a lot with the stress levels.

  • Adele

    After many sleepless nights I succumbed and did what I had been led to believe was wrong and bed shared. Now my son and I get great sleep at night and sometimes a good afternoon nap too. He sleeps better for it and so do I.
    He starts in his co sleeper for his first stint and then sleeps with me for his morning feeds. This way I can nap while he eats. When I wake up we change sides and go again. He never grumbles for the other side because he has gone into another sleep cycle being all snug with his mummy.
    I’m going to be sad when it is time for him to go to his cot and will miss my morning cuddles.

  • Chris

    I’m doing this at the moment, I couldn’t do it for first month as bub’s mouth was small and I have big breast, so he wasn’t latching on properly. However now my son is 3 months and we have the best sleep , and he always wakes up with a smile :))!

  • Michelle

    Bedsharing is a beautiful thing. I’ve been doing it since my son was 3 weeks old, and the only reason I didn’t from birth is because being a first time mum listened to everyone else saying I shouldn’t, but in my heart I knew it was right and it’s beautiful! I wake up to a big smile everyday, and I definitely wouldn’t still be breastfeeding if I didn’t do it. I love it xxx

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  • Megan

    I remember the first time I co-slept with my son when he was about 4 or 5 months old and we were visiting family( without my partner) it was early winter, he hated the portacot and kept waking.

    After a night feed I kept him in bed and I moved him about 5 inches away from me so I didn’t roll onto him but kept a hand on him..

    I still remembering it as almost intoxicating – his smell of baby and breastmilk and the gentleness of his breath gave me calm like I had never known.

    I was hooked and never looked back and even though he still at 4.5 will only stay in his bed all night half the time having a little creature snuggled in is one of life’s joyful moments.

    They are little babies for such a short period – I love that I have such precious private memories to cherish.

  • Sally

    I have never read anywhere before of a link between formula feeding and an increased ris of SIDS. What is the connection and where can I find more information?

  • Olivia

    I have wanted to co sleep with my baby boy who’s 5wks but been too scared. babies lay on their side to breast feed so I worry if we both fall asleep while breast feeding that Bub could suffocate coz he’s not on his back. I’m a C cup so not heavy breasted, I’m a non smoker but give 1 formula bottle at night coz my supply isn’t great. Is it safe for me to co sleep?

  • Erin

    Do you have any tips for feeding positions in bed? My 6 month old tends to come to bed with me in the early hours of the morning but I find that feeding her in bed gives me an incredibly sore neck and back from lying in a twisted side-on position.

  • Heather

    Any advice on how to safely bedshare with twins??