The Return of "Breast-Sleeping"

Dr. McKenna speaks at San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition seminar.
In the industrialized Western world, we often expect babies to sleep over night as early as possible while “sleeping like a baby” in the first three months really means, according to Dr. James McKenna, sleeping near the mother, waking up frequently and being breastfed. He named the arrangement “breastsleeping.”

“Infants are contact seekers,” said Dr. McKenna at a recent San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition seminar. “This is what’s good for their physiology. This is what their survival depends on,” said the anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame and world-recognized behavioral sleep expert.

He called the belief of solitary infant sleep a “systematic error,” adding that in spite of the common practice of letting babies sleep alone, people were not completely convinced by this arrangement. In the bottom of their hearts, parents felt more comfortable about having the baby sleep near the mom, and that’s exactly why baby monitors are so popular.

Dr. McKenna believes that breastsleeping is humankind’s oldest and most successful sleep and feeding arrangement. Parents co-sleep with their babies to protect them, to monitor them, and to ease breastfeeding. It’s time to restore the norm.

Those who are against mom sleeping with baby argued that bed-sharing raised the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In Milwaukee, for example, parents saw an ad in which the headboard of the parental bed is portrayed as a tombstone and etched onto it were the words, “For too many babies last year, this was their final resting place.”

“The ad is saying, ‘Not only shouldn’t you sleep with your baby but it’s almost against the law, and parents should be arrested,’” Dr. McKenna said. “It’s unacceptable. And it’s not really the evidence.”

He took a look at how easy it is for an infant to be suffocated by an overlay and found that, first, while parents who drink or do drugs shouldn’t be sleeping with their babies because they could roll over onto their child, the chance of a normal sleeping adult roll over onto their child and cause death is only 1/16400. Second, when mom is breastfeeding, she essentially creates a little shell around the baby and the chance of her to roll over onto the baby is even thinner.

“Mothers don’t have to co-sleep with their babies,” said Dr. McKenna, “but they should be able to if they want to without being accused of killing their children.”

Here in the U.S., bed-sharing is a growing trend among families. More moms are choosing to share a bed with the infants. The practice in the U.S. has grown from about 6 percent of parents in 1993 to 24 percent in 2015.

Dr. McKenna acknowledged that it’s natural for parents want to bed-share. Pediatricians need to be less judgmental about the practice and more understanding of families’ choices, Dr. McKenna said.

“We don’t want mothers to lie to their health providers and receiving no safety information for their sleeping and breastfeeding choices. They need to learn how to do it safely,” he said. “And we’ll never discover how to arrange the safest bedspring environment unless we explore it and recognize that breastfeeding has changed things permanently.”

Jasper at the Seminar.
**This post was originally published on San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition's Newsletter. Photo credit to To-wen Tseng.


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