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What’s the difference between cosleeping and bedsharing?

When I say co-sleeping, you probably have an idea pop into your head. But did you know that depending on where you live, it might not be the actual definition? Today we are going to talk about one of our BIG questions we get a lot here at Talkin’ Sleep. What’s the difference between cosleeping and bedsharing? Are they actually the same? People ask this because they think its actually the same thing, but it is not. So I’m here to set the record straight– let’s get into it!

So what’s the difference between co-sleeping and bedsharing? 

Okay, so let’s talk about definitions. In the US and Canada, co-sleeping and bed sharing often are used interchangeably as if they’re the same word, but they’re actually not the same thing at all! Bed Sharing is the practice of sleeping in the same bed with one’s child. Whether that’s directly in your bed or on one of those pillows. Co-sleeping means they sleep near their parents but on a separate surface. Examples are a sidecar bassinet, a crib in your room or even their own mattress on the floor beside your bed (called a floor bed).

If you have a baby you were probably told all about where they should sleep (in the crib, alone, on their back)  And so parents are often only given information about how to have their baby sleep safely in a crib. There is lots of information out there about how crib sleep is the safest way to sleep for everyone.

There is more than one safe way for babies to sleep

But here’s the problem with crib sleep being promoted as the ultimate and only way for a baby to sleep safely– breastfeeding parents come home with their baby, they put them in that crib or the bassinet, and the baby starts crying.

The breastfeeding parent takes them out, feeds them, puts them back, an hour or two or three later, cry again. Take them out, put them back. After 1, 2, 3 days of this, maybe a week of this. The breastfeeding mom has two options. 

Scenario #1 | Forcing what’s not working

That mama is gonna continue insisting that the crib is the only safe place for the baby to sleep. (I mean the pamphlet said so–so it wouldn’t misguide her, right?!) She’ll continue getting up at night, terrified of putting her baby in the bed or setting up a safe sleeping arrangement. (Because the crib is the “only” safe place–per the pamphlet). Each time she gets up, she will become more and more exhausted. And she’s probably going to end up in the second scenario out of desperation and exhaustion. 

Scenario #2 | Whoops I fell asleep (from exhaustion)

As exhausted as she is, it’s time to just sit with the baby and try and let them sleep. She takes the baby, sits on a recliner or a couch, and eventually just falls asleep from exhaustion. And NEWSFLASH this is the thing that is actually dangerous for your baby. 

It’s important to have an intentional safe sleep plan.

Everything can be safe or unsafe if you practice an activity in a way that they weren’t intended to be practiced. In fact, between 65 and 75% of breastfeeding parents (although they don’t plan on it) end up co-sleeping or bed sharing. But there is a safe way to co-sleep or bed share, and there is an unsafe way to bedshare too (just like with cribs by the way!). Parents who are shamed into thinking that crib sleep is the only way to keep your baby sleeping safely who end up cosleeping or bedsharing inadvertently do so unsafely because they didn’t intend to or plan to bed, share or co-sleep. Providers can help prevent this by providing education on how to sleep safely when co sleeping or bedsharing.

Accidental cosleeping or bed sharing is way more unsafe than intentionally planning to bed share or co-sleep depending on your personal situation. In order to have the safest sleep arrangement for you,  whether you choose for your baby to sleep in a crib or to co-sleep, to bedshare or whatever it is, it is essential to be intentional and follow the safe sleep guidelines for your sleep arrangement of choice.

So what do breastfeeding parents do instead?

Again, this can vary based on individual circumstances and factors. For healthy babies born full-term,who exclusively breastfeed planning on cosleeping or bedsharing is a wise choice. sSleeping close to the parent for an infant, especially under six months old, can be soothing for the baby. It can also help them regulate their body temperature, their breathing and their heart rate. And that is a safety measure that doesn’t cost anything and is designed by nature to keep your baby safe and healthy. Sleeping closely with the baby also promotes bonding and breastfeeding and increases the chances that mom will be successful breastfeeding and also will be able to breastfeed longer term to make sure and help you to reach your breastfeeding goals.

Now, some babies may have medical conditions that would make it less safe for them to sleep in a crib away from a caregiver, but also for example, for premature infants, they have other additional needs that cannot be met when they’re sleeping in a crib. For this instance, the parent make consider a separate surface co-sleeping arrangement. It is really important when choosing your sleeping arrangements to consider your individual situation, your individual baby,their needs as well as your needs.

Here are some questions to ask your self when choosing your best sleep arrangement:

  • Does my baby have any health conditions that affect their sleep?
  • What are your family’s beliefs and values around where babies should sleep? What are my personal values on this question? What about my partner?
  • Are you breastfeeding? 
  • Are you or another adult in the house smoking or using medication or substance that impairs judgment?
  • Does crib sleep actually make sense for you and your baby and your values? 

If it doesn’t, the safest thing to do is to planfully and intentionally set up either a bed sharing or co-sleeping arrangement. If you don’t feel safe with your baby in your bed, the next safest thing is to have them in a sidecar crib. Bed sharing is not the safest option for everyone. Crib is not the safest option for everyone. So make sure that you choose the option that is safest for you, your baby, and you in your individual situation.

Okay Val–but what is the safest sleep option?

Crib sleep is the safest option for some families. Same with bed sharing is the safest option for other families. Cosleeping on a separate surface is another safest option for other families. There is no such thing as one sleeping arrangement that is the safest option for everyone. I know you’re trying to choose what’s best, and that direct answers probably give you a bit more reassurance, but one answer for all families is just not a thing. The good news is that I am here to support you as you discover which safe sleep option is the best option for you.

Benefits of Bed Sharing for Breastfeeding Families

Okay so you might want to know – are there any benefits to myself or my baby if we bedshare? The short answer is good news – YES! The benefits of bedsharing for breastfeeding, moms is a happy, more sleeping, well-fed baby. There is evidence that bedsharing also means that the parents sleep more and longer as well! An average of 47 extra minutes of sleep every night compared to moms who have to get up to reset all their babies in the crib. In those early days of life with a newborn–47 extra minutes PER NIGHT is golden! But let’s dig into more specifics. 

Bedsharing is more convenient, and makes milk more accessible to your baby

Having a baby laying directly next to you, whether that’s right in your bed or in an immediate sidecar crib, is more convenient and accessible to feed your baby. It gives you the ability to jroll over to side laying nurse and feed them without actually getting out of bed. I mean the amount of time and energy it takes to get out of bed multiple times a night to walk over to a crib and then put them back in the crib, wait until they fall asleep, and then crash just to do it again in 1.5 – 2 hours.😵‍💫You don’t need to do any of that if they’re in your bed or directly next to you.

Bedsharing promotes a healthy milk supply

That ability to nurse more frequently (without the energy drain) can help maintain healthy milk supply. It can promote healthy growth and development and ensure that you’re getting the supply and they’re getting the milk that they need. Bed sharing can also help babies sleep more soundly, for longer periods of time, and better quality sleep.

Why? Because they’re literally next to their source of comfort, safety, food! Everything they could possibly need for a great sleep is right there beside them when they’re right beside the parents. They can smell, hear, taste, touch their parents, and that just creates a level of safety that allows longer, more settled sleep.

Bed sharing can promote enhanced bonding.

This is because you’re spending more time together, you’re hearing all of their little noises and, and you’re basically cuddling with them all night long. Your proximity to them can help with better regulation of body temperature, breathing, and heart rate for the baby. Bed sharing in the first six months of life for full term healthy babies with their breastfeeding mothers actually has a reduced risk of SIDS. This is because your body helps the baby’s body regulate it’s breathing. 

Enhances the chances of more restful sleep.

This is really cool and science-y. Baby and breastfeeding mom’s bodies sync together in terms of their rhythms of sleep. Which basically means that when a baby does wake up to feed, it’s actually when mom is in a lighter sleep cycle. So it’s actually less disruptive to the quality of mom’s sleep to wake up and feed them. Bonus for some moms is they are able to feed without actually waking up, which is pretty cool.

Common misconceptions about cosleeping, bedsharing and SIDS

SIDS gets thrown around as a blanket term but it actually covered two kinds of stopping to breathe – stopping to breath due to the body stopping (biology) and stopping to breathe due to physical asphyxiation (falling, rolling, entrapment). People often cite “rolling on your baby” as a fear when it comes to bedsharing. However, it is basically impossible within a safe bedsharing arrangements (following the safe sleep seven fully). If baby is healthy and breastfed, mom is sober, not on any medication and following the safe sleep guidelines for bed sharing.

It is not possible for you to roll on your baby because your bodies are synced together and mom’s body will wake baby’s body as needed- remember the breathing regulation? You can read more about this in the Safe Infant Sleep by James McKenna. You might recall an experience from when your baby was first born, that you could hear every little noise that they make and you easily wake to feed them without actually trying. So bed sharing moms are also quicker to intervene if something was to go wrong.

You notice their every noise,  because your bodies are biologically synced. It is literally physically impossible for breastfeeding moms with their babies sleeping directly next to them to actually roll on them. When rolling is possible is if there is an adult in the bed who is not the breastfeeding parent. Or if the breastfeeding parent had alcohol or drugs or medication  that would impair this biological syncting or cause the adult’s sleep to be too deep. In this situation, it is not safe to bed share, and the risks of bedsharing would outweigh the benefits. In this case parents should opt for either separate surface co-sleeping or even crib sleep, depending on your situation.

When is bed sharing not safe?

Now, if you or your partner are smokers under the influence of alcohol, excessively tired, bed sharing should be avoided. If a family decides to bed share, you have to make sure that you planfully and intentionally read the Safe Sleep Seven by La Leche League or you can read Safe Infant Sleep Book  to make sure that you’re following all of the guidelines for safe bed sharing.

If safe bed sharing is not possible for you because of smoking, because maybe you’re not breastfeeding, maybe There is medication that you have to take that would impair your ability to wake up easily. Then opt for either separate surface cosleeping or crib sleep and follow the guidelines for those two options.

Well I hope this cleared up some baby sleep vocabulary confusion. There is so much to learn about baby sleep, and I’m here to help you make the best decision for your individual baby and family. So if you need help figuring out which of our resources is the next right thing for you–contact us. We’re happy to help.

Have you taken our Sleep Philosophy quiz? Well if you haven’t absolutely check that out! We provide you with a list of resources based on your specific sleep philosophy to help you make the best choices about sleep (and parenting for your family.) If you have and you’re Philosophy is Science-Led then you’re probably curious to learn more about the specific research and the specific numbers and statistics around co-sleeping. So be sure to add Safe Infant Sleep by James McKenna to your TBR (to be red) list. He talks about how to cosleep safely, but also reviews all of the research around it. It was a great read 🤓

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