Alexandra Bradshaw isn’t exactly a co-sleeper, but she does “breastsleep” from time to time when she’s very tired and credits it with helping her get some precious shut-eye in the early months with her son, Dakota, now a year old.
You might not have heard of breastsleeping, but it’s essentially just a new name for what nursing moms have been doing for centuries—bedsharing while you breastfeed.
This age-old idea took hold as a bonafide parenting philosophy after James McKenna, sleep expert and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, coined the term breastsleeping. In a 2015 peer-reviewed paper titled There is no such thing as infant sleep, there is no such thing as breastfeeding, there is only breastsleeping, McKenna argues that breastsleeping is the most successful sleeping and feeding arrangement for moms and babies.
“Abundant research suggests that between about 40 and 70 percent of breastfeeding moms are bedsharing, because of the functional interdependence between breastfeeding and sleeping arrangements,” says McKenna.
Breastsleeping can be considered a form of co-sleeping, but while co-sleeping is intertwined with the attachment-parenting philosophy, breastsleeping is really just that: breastfeeding and sleeping. (If you're not quite sure how that works, check out the side-lying breastfeeding position.) Moms who decide to bring baby into bed to nurse aren’t necessarily aligning themselves with other co-sleeping ideologies. For many, it’s simply an easier way to keep baby fed throughout the night.
We all know how exhausting night feeds can be. There are the multiple middle-of-the-night shuffles to the bassinet or crib down the hall, followed by sitting in a chair or on a couch with baby, trying desperately not to nod off (and potentially drop them) while they nurse, then attempting to return baby to their own bed in their sleepy state without a cry-fest, which can start the whole cycle over again. Bradshaw says she found breastsleeping to be a helpful alternative to this scenario, especially in the wee hours. “I would often co-sleep with him during naps and in the early morning around 4 or 5 a.m.,” she says.
Although Bradshaw says neither of them sleep soundly during these times, some rest is better than none. “I really enjoy having him snuggled in with me, but he often sleeps more lightly with frequent wake-ups,” she says. “He wants to nurse a lot more when he’s next to me.” In the early months, this light sleeping is a big benefit of breastsleeping, says McKenna. That’s because more frequent arousals from sleep and more frequent breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). All that extra nursing can also help to improve and regulate milk production. And according to McKenna’s research, “breastsleeping” is associated with longer breastfeeding outcomes, too.
So, it makes sense and there are lots of upsides, but how safe is it? The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) continues to take a hard line against co-sleeping, under any circumstances. According to the CPS, bed-sharing increases accidents, such as falling off the bed, getting trapped under blankets or between the mattress and the wall, or being suffocated by an adult or older child. While co-sleeping is not labelled as a cause for SIDS, studies have shown it is associated with higher risk.
However, some sleep and breastfeeding experts, including McKenna, disagree with this stance and say that people need to be better informed to make bed-sharing safer for infants: “Along with WHO, UNICEF, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine and La Leche League International, we and many other SIDS scientists all feel that when precautions are taken and mothers did not, do not smoke (or did not during pregnancy) [which] such breastsleeping behaviour is acceptably safe.”
If you’re going to breastsleep, be it on the regular all night long, occasionally during a cluster-feeding phase or just in the early morning for that snooze-button feed, make sure you take the proper precautions, including sleeping on a flat, firm mattress, removing blankets and pillows, placing baby on their back and keeping older kids out of the bed.
McKenna doesn’t outright recommend parents ignore the safe sleep recommendations outlined by the Canadian Paediatric Society and Public Health Agency of Canada, but he does suggest moms and dads make their own decisions. “I think it’s critical for parents to know that where an infant sleeps and the deep relational and personal aspects it reflects is a decision that is only for parents to make,” he says.