Co-Sleeping and Nighttime Parenting

For those of you co-sleeping with your children, Attachment Parenting’s International Research Group has released a position paper that may be of interest to you:

My own thoughts on nighttime parenting generally run toward personal amusement as new parents repeatedly get asked the same question, “Is the baby a good sleeper?” 

What exactly does that term mean?  What does the term “good sleeper” mean to you?  That they sleep 12 hours at 2 weeks of age?  That you can shut the door and say, “I am off-duty for 12 hours, see you when I open the door  in the morning?”

Parenting does not work like that, does it?  The suggestion is humorous, yet in American society, it is almost what people seem to expect.  Immediate independence of the baby from the parents.  Rugged solitary individualism.

Because I love other cultures and anthropological kinds of studies, for me this question of “good sleep”  always leads to me to think about the cultural connotations of sleep.

There is a wonderful book that many of you probably know called, “Our Babies, Ourselves,” by Meredith Small.  It is a fascinating book and here are some interesting sleep facts:

  • For most of human history a baby has slept with his or her mother, or perhaps both parents. 
  • It was not even until 200 years ago cultures began to construct dwellings with more than one room. The majority of people around the world still live in one -room shelters where all activities take place.
  • 50 out of 136 cultures evaluated by anthropologist John Whiting found mother slept with child and father slept in another place.
  • In 67 percent of cultures around the world children sleep either in parent’s room and/or bed. Japanese teenagers sleep in their parents’ room.

Newborn babies sleep for short periods interspersed by even shorter periods of wakefulness.   Interestingly enough, babies enter sleep through the REM sleep cycle, which is different than adults, and they also spend more time in REM sleep than adults.   By three to four months, establishment of nocturnal and diurnal cycles takes places and eventually consolidates into longer periods of sleep.  Many babies will sleep four hours at a time in the first few weeks, some will  reach eight hours of continuous sleep by 4 months of age.

Sleeping through the night by medical standards is not a 8 hour stretch, however.  It is a stretch from midnight to five am.  Dr.  Sears has said that 70 percent of babies slept from midnight to 5 am by 3 months of age, with another 13 percent doing that by 6 months of age.  Ten percent of infants did not sleep uninterrupted throughout the first year.

“ALL children will sleep like adults,eventually, it is just a matter of how long it takes them to achieve this pattern.” says Dr. William Sears.

However, the amount of sleep in other cultures seems  variable, according to Meredith Small.  She cites , for example, that:

  • Kipsigis African babies wake three to four times a night until they are eight months old
  • Dutch children sleep 2 hours more a day than American children

James McKenna, the well-known anthropological sleep researcher from University of Notre Dame,  believes that all of us are designed to be biphasic sleepers designed to sleep twice in a 24 hour period.  His website is very interesting and can be found here:

Mothers and babies who sleep together are in sync and are physiologically entwined in that  the movements,breathing of one partner, mother or baby, affect the other. This may be important because each time the baby responds to an arousal by its mom, the response sets in motion a cycle that gives infants additional practice in breathing.  Co-sleeping mothers exhibit five times the protective response behaviors toward their babies.

When co-sleeping, infants spend greater amounts of time in levels 1-2  of sleep and less time at the deeper levels, exhibit more REM sleep, and are awake longer.  This is important for protection against SIDS. 

The other benefit for co-sleeping for older babies who are  still nursing at night is that many calories may be obtained at night.  Research has show babies as old as ten months of age were receiving up to 25 percent of their calories at night.  McKenna reports infants who co-sleep and breastfeed at night wake up for shorter periods of time and have less crying than breastfeeding infants sleeping not in proximity to their mothers.

If your baby is an older baby or toddler and is frequently waking, there could be true physical causes of night waking.  The baby could be hungry or thirsty, hot or cold, or wet.  Teething could be a factor or also other developmental milestones.  Reflux and food allergies can also be a culprit.   I have talked to many mothers whose infants had history of reflux and were on medications and when their infant “grew out of their reflux” and were taken off their medications, they had a toddler with frequent night waking.  It may be worth further investigation if this sounds like your toddler. 

Noise, environmental irritants, stuffy nose, allergy, ear infections, pinworms, UTI,  and pain at night can also impact night waking for the older baby and toddler.

Safe co-sleeping is paramount.  Here is a partial list of parameters for safe co-sleeping from


Safety while cosleeping is of utmost importance. Parents should take very seriously the importance of providing their babies with a safe sleeping environment. There are many guidelines, most of which are common sense (Sears, 1995b; Thevenin, 1987). To start with, the bed must be arranged in such a way as to eliminate the possibility of the child falling out. This can be done using a mesh guardrail, a special cosleeper crib (with three sides), or by pushing the bed flush against the wall, making sure there are no crevices which could entrap the baby. Next, in the early months, parents must be sure to place the baby next to the mother rather than between the parents as fathers are not usually as aware of their infants as the mothers are at first. Cosleepers should use a large bed or a sidecar arrangement, with a three-sided crib clamped flush to the mother’s side of the bed and the mattresses set to the same level. They should avoid using heavy comforters or pillows near the infant. Babies should not be overdressed as the warmth of the mother will be shared with the child. Infants who cosleep are usually breastfed throughout the night; this is to be encouraged. Waterbeds, sofas, and other soft surfaces should not be the location for cosleeping (Heinig, 2000; Sears, 1995b; Thevenin, 1987). Most importantly, parents should not cosleep if they are seriously sleep-deprived or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Parents who are smokers should not cosleep as secondary smoke greatly increases the risk of death from SIDS (McKenna et al., 1993; Sears, 1995b).

For the full article, which is full of anthropological studies and references and is really, really interesting, please see here:

Other detailed safety parameters can be found here:

Here are some recommendations from that Mothering article by James McKenna:

James J. McKenna, professor of anthropology and director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Behavioral Studies of Mother-Infant Sleep, has this to say about the CPSC study: “It attempted to medicalize an event that is a rational issue. It is a safety issue, but not only a safety issue. . . . Most babies die in cribs, so do you conclude that cribs are dangerous and babies should sleep with parents? No, you concentrate on solving the problem, but with cosleeping you attempt to eliminate the practice. That is not science, that is a cultural choice.”2

McKenna’s work has gone a long way toward helping parents who do choose to cosleep keep their babies safe. Here is a list of rules for family bed safety:

  • For parents who smoke, drink, or are unusually heavy sleepers, or use any kind of drugs that inhibit arousal from sleep, cosleeping on the same surface with a baby is not recommended, said McKenna. For these parents, having their child sleep on a separate surface near them, such as a cradle or bassinet, will protect the baby from overlaying while still providing the baby with many of the same benefits as cosleeping.
  • Make sure the surface your baby sleeps on is firm. “There are many adult mattresses that can match the stiffness of CPSC recommendations,” McKenna said. Avoid waterbeds, lambskins, and other soft bedding for your baby. Stuffed animals and toys should be kept out of the baby’s sleep environment.
  • Don’t give pillows to babies or young toddlers, and keep their faces away from your pillow. Keep blankets away from babies’ faces, too.
  • Cosleeping babies are kept warmer than solitary sleeping babies, so they need lighter blankets and pajamas. (Being too warm may be a factor in SIDS.)
  • Toddlers should not be allowed to sleep next to infants, said McKenna, because “They are too unaware of the dangers their bodies pose.” Instead, either the infant or the toddler can sleep on a separate surface next to the family bed—the infant in a cosleeper, crib, or bassinet; the toddler in a toddler bed or mattress on the floor.
  • Headboards, footboards, and side rails can be unsafe, especially if a baby is left alone in bed with these trappings. One of the most dangerous situations for young children is getting their heads wedged in furniture, said McKenna. He suggested making sure the child’s head can’t fit between the side rail and any surrounding surfaces. If a parent is using a crib as a sidecar, make sure the two mattresses are on the same level and held tightly together, so there is no space that a baby could slip into. If a bed is up against a wall, ensure that there are no gaps in which a child’s head can get trapped. Another option is to put the mattress right on the floor, so that side rails are not necessary to prevent a baby from falling off the bed.
  • Do not sleep on the sofa with your baby, or leave a sleeping baby alone on a sofa.
  • Do not leave a baby unattended in an adult bed. The benefits of the family bed exist only when the parents are there with the child; if the parents want some adult time while baby sleeps, the child should be put somewhere else—such as a crib, bassinet, or mattress on the floor—until the parents are ready for him to join them, McKenna said.

Co-sleeping is a cultural choice; there are many benefits to co-sleeping once a safe sleeping environment is ascertained.

Happy, peaceful dreams and safe co-sleeping,


11 thoughts on “Co-Sleeping and Nighttime Parenting

  1. It’s hard when it doesn’t work out though! The best I was able to achieve with my kids was the “sidecar” arrangement, which at least allowed me to more easily handle nighttime nursing. But I was never able to really have either of my babies sleep in the bed with us — both the babies and I didn’t sleep as well together. After they grew out of the sidecar I had them in our room near our bed in a crib.

    But I never could get baby wearing to work out for me, either. Attachment Parenting failure 🙂

    • I agree it can be hard if it doesn’t work out and you want it to.. …I also know folks who could not co-sleep for true safety reasons, I also know sexual abuse survivors who were not comfortable…So I don’t really think attachment parenting failure if you are not co-sleeping…In fact, go peek at Attachement Parenting International and the 8 Ideals…I bet you will find ones that worked well for you. Also, I think as long as you are in proximity at night and not abdicating your nighttime parenting, there you go. 🙂 Happy parenting!

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