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The benefits of co-sleeping outweigh the risks

Co-sleeping or baby nursery? Many new parents are debating this today. Here's what a family doctor has to say.

It's no secret that co-sleeping is widely frowned upon in the West
It's no secret that co-sleeping is widely frowned upon in the West (iStock)

In today’s world, a child doesn’t have to become a teenager to claim his own room and privacy. The popular Western concept of the baby nursery, with beautifully painted walls and wallpapers with rainbows and storks, are not only commonplace in the West but have also found a market in India. As we move to a more urbanised way of living and raising children, more and more parents are opting for separate nurseries for their newborns. The practice of making a jholi or a swing out of her saree and letting the baby nap in it during the day and in the safety of her arms during the night was commonplace, and even today, the majority of Indian parents do co-sleep—a 2006 survey of sleeping habits among both urban and rural children in India found that almost 93% of Indian children slept in the same room as their parents.

But as we move ahead in the 21st century, the practice of creating a separate nursery for infants is becoming more common. One reason for this could be urban parents with greater exposure to parenting books, blogs and popular culture adopting cultural practices that are different from those followed by previous generations. Take the wildly popular self-proclaimed baby sleep expert Richard Ferber, for instance, who came out with a 'Bible' for sleep training tiny babies in the 1980s. Ferber says that a child is emotionally ready for sleep training anywhere between three and five months of age. The mother is supposed to feed and have a ‘loving bed time routine’ before leaving the baby in the crib. The baby is allowed to ‘cry it out’ till she falls asleep.

If the baby cries too much, then the mother is advised to step into his room to pat him and comfort him by her voice alone but not pick him up. The baby’s crying episodes are gradually phased out to be longer and longer till she learns to self soothe and fall asleep on her own. This practice of crying it out and self-soothing got so popular that it was a nationwide practice in the US and sleep training a baby came to be known as Ferberizing.

It's no secret that co-sleeping is widely frowned upon in the West. Even though the value of breastfeeding is regaining its importance and more mothers are opting for it, it's a fact that separate bedrooms are a recipe for early breastfeeding discontinuation (most commonly in the first three–four months). Feeding a separately sleeping baby requires too much effort as the mother has to get up, feed, put the baby back to sleep and tiptoe away. Many a times, the baby will wake up even before the mother has left the room. Sleep deprivation is bad enough and listening to your baby howl night after night is even more traumatic. It is easier for the mother to take turns with the husband for the night shift (who is going to obviously bottle feed), pushing breastfeeding into the background.

Many ‘baby care scientists’ advise against co-sleeping and urge mothers to maintain a distance with their babies. But this goes contary to observations by child psychologists, who say that babies who are held, carried and have their nurturer close by tend to be more easily adjusting and more trusting of their parents. These babies are said to be ‘securely attached’ to their caregiver, and yet, shockingly, often mothers are encouraged to not follow their instincts and "harden up" to their children. This could lead to children who have low feelings of security right from a tender age. and may grow up to be ‘insecurely attached’.

These sleep-trained babies are left to look after themselves and be disciplined from the age of just a few months. They are said to have weaker bonds with their mothers and are more prone to depression. Studies show that such children can grow up to be aggressive preteens, rebellious and detached teens, commitment-phobic young adults.

A baby understands the language of touch more than the spoken word. So, assure him he is safe by holding him. If you don’t hold your baby fearing you will ‘spoil’ him today, there are chances of developing trust issues later in childhood and adulthood. In addition, co-sleeping has physical effects too. Sleeping with the mother regularizes the deep sleep and shallow sleep breathing pattern of the baby. Even if the baby drifts off to a deep sleep it will be roused multiple times during the night by the mother’s breathing and movements, affording protection against the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which is cited as the number 1 reason against co-sleeping. Some people argue there is a risk of smothering when sleeping with the mother. This risk ranges from negligible to none in mothers who are not under the influence of any intoxicating substances.

Even in the West, co-sleeping is gaining greater acceptance. "When parents and babies sleep together, their heart rates, brain waves, sleep states, oxygen levels, temperature, and breathing influence one another," writes Diana Divecha in an article in Greater Good magazine published by the University of California, Berkeley, talking about work done by scientists like James J. McKenna, director emeritus of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, and author of Safe Infant Sleep: Expert Answers to Your Cosleeping Questions. McKenna’s conclusions, supported by research by anthropologists and developmental scientists over the last 30 years (and contrary to recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics), are firmly on the side of "sleeping together, but safely" (on the back, in a well-ventilated, non-smoking room, without oversoft and loose bedding).

The mother-baby bond is a life-long relationship. If the foundation is solid, the mother and the child will enjoy a meaningful, symbiotic trusting relationship from birth till adulthood. The child goes on to feel secure no matter what life throws at him. We are asked to be deviant from nature in the name of scientific progress but science is robbing us of our intuition, our maternal instincts and from loving our children altogether.

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