I decided to take the Attachment Parenting principle of "Ensure Safe Sleep" literally and do a little presentation of exactly how we cosleep safely, and have since Mikko was born three years ago.
Now, other attachment parents choose different sleep setups — see Amber Strocel's excellent and picture-filled guest post on "Flexibility and finding sleep" for a rundown of some of the most common options — so this post isn't meant to be prescriptive but rather to spark ideas for how you might put together a safe cosleeping environment that works for you. We have chosen to share one family bed for the three of us, and this is how we've managed it successfully.
I'm going to start with making the mama comfortable, because there's no point being miserable while you cosleep! I like to use three pillows (count 'em!), down for safety reasons from the five pillows I used to support my aching bulk during pregnancy. I put one pillow under my head, one behind my back, and one between my knees. Here's a little more on each:
- Head pillow: Some cosleepers swear off all pillows at head level due to smothering concerns. I am a very stationary sleeper, and I keep my pillow tucked behind my head as I sleep and rest my cheek on the very corner (or did when Mikko was a newborn, at least; I'm not worried anymore now that he's a very sturdy 3). I also keep one arm up that by default holds the pillow in place. It's up to you whether you feel comfortable using a head pillow, but if you do, some simple precautions like that are wise.
- Back pillow: I sleep on my side so I can nurse lying down. I give my back some support by really wedging a pillow into the small of my back. Not gently — shove it on down there! I use a regular bed pillow, but other mamas find a firmer or different shaped pillow works better for them; you can try out sofa cushions and bolsters and other decorative pillows and see. I need the pillow to stay put — I found out from hotel travel that it otherwise doesn't unless I have something firm behind it to push against. In my case, it's a trunk that doubles as my nightstand. For you, it might be a wall or other furniture.
- Knee pillow: I use a folded-up body pillow, because that's what I have. I think a regular bed pillow would work just the same, or a specialty knee pillow might be even cozier. (I've coveted them a time or two!) The reason for a knee pillow is it better aligns your hips, to help keep both your back and your hips from aching. At first I used to not like having my knees separated, but I'm so used to it now that when I don't have the pillow between them all I can feel is knobbiness, and my hips immediately protest!
Here I am pretending to sleep. Why? I have no idea.
And here's the part where I read the captions to you.
If you have long hair, tie your hair back in a braid or ponytail. There's otherwise a small risk of strangling your baby with your own hair. (I mean, seriously, could Edgar Allan Poe devise anything more horrifying?)
Pull the blankets up so that they come up roughly to your waist or chest, and the same on your baby. Keep them below armpit level on your baby in any case. Often, Mikko had no blankets on him (by choice), but he has always been a very warm little guy.
In the picture, I'm safely using just a thin sheet. In real life (ahem), I use a feather duvet. I leave that to your discretion. I usually pulled the duvet over just me, and used a smaller and lighter baby blanket to cover Mikko's legs.
To keep my upper body warm, I wear a long-sleeve button-down pajama shirt — flannel men's shirt in the winter, and thinner cotton ladies' one in the summer. (Yes, it's still sorta winter here. I live in Seattle.)
Keep in mind that cosleeping babies don't need to be as bundled as solitary-sleeping ones. To keep a cosleeping baby warm, we found that in the summer only a t-shirt and diaper were necessary. In the winter, we go with a long-sleeve close-fitting t-shirt, and long pajama pants now that he's potty trained. Before that, we just kept him in a diaper or nakey-butt to make nighttime pottying or changing easier on our groggy selves. You can use BabyLegs or similar to keep warm any little legs that regularly kick the blankets off.
Speaking of grogginess, I can't be bothered with fancy-schmancey nursing nightwear with holes and clasps. Under my opened button-down shirt, I wear a stretchy camisole with shelf bra, the kind you buy in three-packs at Costco. Through experience, I've found it's more comfortable on my shoulder to take down the strap that's on the bottom arm before I go to sleep so it doesn't dig in. Then, throughout the night, as Mikko rolls over to nurse, I just slide one or the other breast out the top of the cami's neckline. Easy as pie! In the days I was leaking, the slight pressure of the cami, plus the dual layers of the shelf bra it contains, was enough to contain most breastmilk leakage.
Pants for the mother are optional. I just had to say it. (ETA: I do tuck any drawstrings into the waistband, so that they're not a choking hazard.)
Here's something you can't really see from the picture, but we have a king-size mattress set directly on the floor, no boxspring or bedframe. Behind my back, I have this awesome foam bed rail from gobedbug.com. Because it goes underneath the fitted bottom sheet, I feel it's safer than a traditional bed rail because there are no gaps for a baby to roll against and perhaps get caught in and suffocate. I put that at the foot of the trunk behind my back to afford a little more roll-off protection on that side.
However, from the time I got down side-lying nursing, I've kept Mikko comfortably ensconced between Sam and me in the middle, so there's no rolling off to contend with. For absolute safety, I've heard not to let babies sleep next to partners, other non-mama adults (babysitters, grandparents, etc.), or other children; while I agree with keeping fragile babies separate from toddlers who sleep like butterflies, I think the decision on whether your partner is a safe cosleeping companion is something the two of you have to consider for yourselves. My father, for instance, routinely acts out violence in his sleep (there are many mostly funny family stories about his sleepwalking exploits); I would never recommend that a non-mother who sleepwalks, acts out dreams, or rolls around vigorously be placed next to a vulnerable baby. (Breastfeeding mothers, on the other hand, have protective instincts activated through breastfeeding and can cosleep safely, assuming they're not under the influence of any arousal-affecting drugs or medications.)
With Sam, on the other hand, I had no reason, over our nine years of marriage thus far, to suspect him of nocturnal turbulence. He sleeps on the very far side of the bed and stays there the whole night. (Doesn't that sound romantic! Truthfully, before cosleeping, we used to snuggle for the first half-hour or so and then part ways to actually sleep.)
To be absolutely certain, we bought the king-size mattress so that there are literally feet of room between us, and Mikko as a baby stayed nice and squished up on my side of the bed. Sam's pillows and blankets were far away, though I would always make sure of that fact before and during the night.
Another crucial way to ensure safe sleeping with a partner is to make sure your partner is aware of the baby's presence in bed and takes equal responsibility for the baby's safety. Don't bring the baby in while your partner's asleep, for instance; make sure both of your are conscious of the newborn in bed if your partner is near enough to roll over or fling a blanket that direction.
So that's what I've got! This is the way we've been able to cosleep safely. I look forward to redesigning our sleep situation if and when we decide to add another newborn to the mix…
Here my 3-year-old decides to "help" me with my tutorial …
… and settles in for a snack. To get more sleep, also enjoy my pictorial on how to do side-lying nursing!
A big thanks to the patient Sam for being our photographer, and to our building's window cleaners who let in so much more natural light today!
For more on the benefits of cosleeping, read my winning essay on why I love cosleeping so much. And check back for more great cosleeping articles when the API carnival posts!
What type of cosleeping or other sleeping arrangements have worked for you? Any tips to share?
In sharing how we do things in our family, I am not trying to suggest
bed sharing is right for you. Please consider the safety issues,
and take all precautions when considering where your children will
sleep. Most government agencies and health professionals warn against
bed sharing with infants, particularly under six months.
You need to consider this decision carefully and make a choice you can
own. Don't rest your children's well-being on any one blog post, even mine.