Why Bedsharing and Breastfeeding Go Together, and What Could Happen When You Ignore Biology

by Rita Brhel on July 3, 2013

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safe bedsharing photoAnd I quote: “To achieve maximal security for the baby and optimal availability of breastfeeding, mothers are advised to take the baby of less than four months of age into their bed for feeding during the night, but afterwards to place the baby on its back into his own crib…”

This is the recommendation of the latest anti-bedsharing study to make headlines, by Carpenter et al. Clearly the primary investigator is a man, because as anyone who has ever breastfed a newborn in their bed knows, it is nearly impossible to get through the feeding and put the baby back to his own bed before passing out.

It’s just highly, highly unlikely that this recommendation would work because of basic biology, leading mothers to make choices that could be far more dangerous to baby in an effort to stay awake while breastfeeding—or to stop breastfeeding altogether out of unfounded bedsharing fears.

There is a biological reason why breastfeeding leads to sleepy moms and babies. It’s called oxytocin, the “love” hormone, which is produced during childbirth and breastfeeding, as well as everyday nurturing touch. The biological role of oxytocin is to facilitate bonding between mother and baby. Specifically, oxytocin ensures milk let-down during breastfeeding. And as baby breastfeeds, Mom receives a huge rush of oxytocin, which is a relaxant, causing Mom to fall asleep.

So, it’s true—breastfeeding puts you to sleep.

Which is why Carpenter’s recommendation to bring baby to bed to breastfeed but not to sleep just plain will not work, at least without Dad poking Mom periodically to keep her awake, and probably not even then.

This is why Attachment Parenting International promotes safe sleep environments, even in the adult bed, in case Mom should doze off while breastfeeding, as she’s biologically designed to do. Yes, cosleeping is wonderful for bonding, but if we look at the research of this nighttime parenting choice and its so-called dangers, the recommendation to ban bedsharing under any circumstance is just not there. But what is there? That breastfeeding mothers will fall asleep feeding their babies.

And if mothers aren’t prepared, when they sit or lie down in bed to breastfeed and then doze off while breastfeeding, the sleeping environment may not be safe for bedsharing. There may be fluffy pillows or blankets near baby’s face. There may be a space between the mattress and the wall. The mattress may not be firm enough to keep baby from rolling over. Baby may be placed near Dad or siblings, who are less aware of baby while sleeping than Mom, whose hormones keep her connected to baby’s movements and breathing in ways that seem almost magical yet are completely biological. Without being conscious of making Mom’s bed safe in case she should fall asleep during breastfeeding, this sleeping arrangement could pose risks for baby.

So, to stay awake, Mom may decide to breastfeed her baby on the couch or in the rocking chair—locations that are well-documented to be dangerous for cosleeping—where she might then fall asleep.

Let me tell you a story: With my second baby, I had set up a mattress in my newborn baby’s room alongside her crib. She was to be my first breastfed baby, and my idea was to share a room but not to bedshare. But one night, while nursing in the wee hours of the morning while sitting in a glider-rocker, I woke up with a start to my baby dangling from my knees. I quickly put her in her crib and went back to bed. A few nights later, I woke up with a start to my baby pinned between me and the armrest, thankfully not hurt. And I decided right then and there that it was far safer for my baby to be next to me in bed breastfeeding, on a safe sleeping surface, than for me to be nursing in a chair and taking the chance that I may or may not wake up in time.

I have heard mother after mother share similar stories. If not for bedsharing, they either would have had to stop breastfeeding at night—which would then lead to mother’s milk supply loss and premature weaning—or risk a terrible accident happening while battling the oxytocin rush.

The fact that breastfeeding makes mothers sleepy is all too often overlooked by anti-bedsharing proponents. The current infant sleep safety guidelines for bedsharing advocate informing parents of how to make a bedsharing environment safe should a breastfeeding mother doze off while feeding in bed, which is far safer than dozing off anywhere else.

Providing these guidelines is far more realistic than Carpenter et al. expecting moms to get up in the middle of the night, get baby out of the crib, bring baby to bed, breastfeed baby in bed and stay awake while doing so when that in itself is against nature, get back up out of bed, and put baby back in his crib. Can you imagine doing this the first two weeks after baby’s birth? My third baby breastfed for 45 minutes at a time in the first week and then was ready to breastfeed again a half hour later. I would have never gotten any sleep without bedsharing! And without bedsharing, I likely wouldn’t have been breastfeeding.

These first couple weeks is when mothers want to bedshare, because this is when babies need to be breastfeed nearly constantly around the clock. This is where the concept of a “baby moon” comes from.

If we want to get more mothers breastfeeding, we have to be real with what’s biologically normal instead of pretending that the choice to bedshare has nothing to do with their desire to give their babies the very best.

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Rita Brhel (91 Posts)

Rita Brhel is the editor of Attached Family magazine and is Attachment Parenting International's Publications Coordinator. She is also a local API Resource Leader. She lives in Nebraska (USA) with her husband and three children.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Janine Fowler July 4, 2013 at 1:51 am

Yes yes yes! With my first son, I woke up as he rolled off my body and onto the hospital bed. With my second baby, even knowing better, I found myself dozing off with him on my chest soon after delivery. (That was the biggest factor in me not spending the night in the hospital after his birth — I knew I wanted to take him home, bring him into my bed and pass out safely!) My husband frequently gets annoyed because I pass out while I’m supposed to be just quickly nursing our boys to bed!

As an exclusive breastfeeder, I love bedsharing. I probably couldn’t get enough sleep to function otherwise! But I can understand why some experts are reluctant to encourage it. I feel like if it was recommended for breastfeeding moms to bedshare, formula-feeding moms would also start doing it. It’s hard to understand the unique physiological connection until you actually breastfeed! I suspect there would be a lot of, “I’m as connected with my baby as any breastfed mom” happening. It would be hard for doctors to impose a different set of rules on different moms without reinforcing stigmas and guilt and all of that fun stuff.

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Louise July 6, 2013 at 4:23 am

I think it is important in these ‘studies’ to state who has funded said research. After all there is no profit to be made in bed sharing but billions to be made in cots and cribs (hence such a manufacturer funding FSIDS and having their logo on their website as well as MAM (Nestle) having their advert on the FSIDS page saying dummies lower chances of death which I do not believe either)

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Trevor July 7, 2013 at 6:50 pm

I am a father and husband to a child and mother who bedshared and breastfeed for 2-1/2 years. The thought of the baby being in some kind of danger never crossed our minds. My experience sharing a bed with mother and child has lead me to believe that we protect or child when we are asleep. There is no rolling off the bead…there in no crushing the baby…there is no suffocation from pillows or blankets…there is no falling into the crevice between wall and bed. The natural instinct is to cuddle and protect making a nest out of our bodies…it’s that simple.

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stefani July 11, 2013 at 8:18 am

I currently have a 5 month old as of this Saturday coming and have been bed sharing as of 1 month. I completely agree with this article, at first LO would sleep in her carseat at night next to the couch and I would sleep on the couch and feed her when she woke up. I spent many nights completely in fear that she would fall off or get smudged because no matter how I positioned myself I would pass out in an oxytocin coma!! She would not sleep on her own after 2 weeks for more than 15 minutes, so add exhaustion to that and her colic :( finally I took her to our queen sized bed and blocked all sides and propped her against me on her side which was successful until daddy came home from the army. In support of pur cosleeping and sake of my sanity, hubby bought is a king size bed and I dropped the mattress of the crib and removed the side pushing our king size bed snuggly up the the crib! We have plenty of room!!!! And I now can try and get my little one in her crib and we saved $200 not buying an arms reach cosleeper! She has also slept through mist of the night sin e bringing her to bed! Now the next challenge, to get her sleeping on her own around 6 months! Some babies just require more and I do not believe my child is spoiled, I just saved my own sanity but I couldn’t be happier. I will be sad missing her snuggles when she doesn’t need to sleep with me anymore!

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Pegs July 11, 2013 at 9:36 am

I was scared to breastfeed my baby while laying down at night – not until she is strong enough to move – because I heard a tragic story of a mother who accidentally suffocating her newborn while breastfeeding her at night.
So I usually sit down against the headboard while breastfeeding. Once I fell asleep while breastfeeding and woke up because I felt something fell on my right side of the bed.
To my horror, it was my baby dropped from my hand!
I was lucky, she wasn’t hurt at all.

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Beverley July 11, 2013 at 9:46 am

Interesting article – I am sure you will identify with this! love Mom xx

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Helen Scott July 17, 2013 at 7:37 am

I am a IBCLC and breastfeed my three children and am a bedsharing advocate. I was afraid to do this with my first baby, because of the fear of rolling over onto baby. This is a well written article and covers all the things I experienced. Thanks to Dr James McKenna’s research, I felt more comfortable bedsharing.
I placed this article on Facebook and had a Registered Nurse, ask what is recommended as a safe position to co-sleep for a newborn. I recommend Dr Nils Bergman’s Kangaroo Care position, with the baby’s head in the sniff position to ensure an open airway. He recommends to do this for 30min to and hour, before breastfeeding for the biological reason of stimulation the Mother’s supply and allowing her to relax and rest so her milk will let down. After the feeding, returning to the kangaroo care position allows baby to move into a deeper sleep for 30min aids in digestion and ensures that baby is satisfied and allows Mother to rest while her body is relaxed, before laying baby down in the back to sleep position. What do you recommend?

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Jessica July 19, 2013 at 7:52 am

Bed sharing is safe if done correctly. The only way I was able to keep breastfeeding and not lose my sanity from lack of sleep was to bed share.

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Soha July 22, 2013 at 2:44 am

Still not convinced, you speak as if breastfeeding in bed while mother is asleep ensures the baby cannot fall off her arms, which was about to happen actually to me many times! I’m a mother of a 9-months old twins, and I’m totally against bedsharing. I also found that I cannot sleep at night if I bedshare with any of them, because of the fear of rolling over them, so I end up having a terrible night and become more sleep deprived, but when they are in their bed I can have a deep sleep without fears. Also because they are twins, not one baby, I’m not comfortable with having them sleep between me and my husband, how can we have any moment of intimacy in bed this way? I’m also totally against making love in front of children, even babies, and even if they are asleep, they can wake up in a moment. The only idea I agree with in this article is that breastfeeding is difficult and is not for everyone, but yes I tried to do it, and yes I did wake up in the middle of the night and picked them up to breastfeed them and then put them back to bed, and yes I did fall asleep at those times, but this didn’t change my mind about bedsharing for a moment

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Jessica July 29, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Bedsharing is not for everyone. Maybe you did not feel comfortable bed sharing, however that in no way applies that it is unsafe if done correctly. I do not have twins, but I really don’t see why this would make an extreme difference in bed sharing. Your twins shared a womb and could easily share a bed. As for intimacy, the bed is not the only place you can be intimate, nor is bedtime the only or even most convenient time to do so. I understand your stance against bed sharing. It is still safe if done the right way.

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