To bedshare or not to bedshare? That is the question.
Every new parent wants to do the best by their baby, protecting them from harm and helping them develop into healthy and well-adjusted children. Sleep is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges that parents face, especially in the early days, and much of the advice in recent years has warned bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived new parents of the mortal dangers of bedsharing, both for the baby’s immediate safety, and for their long-term psychological and emotional development. “Bedsharing increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)” and “Your baby should learn to sleep independently to avoid being clingy later on” are two universally accepted statements that sum up the approach that us new parents are encouraged to take.
It’s no surprise then, that when I had my first child in 2019, I was absolutely terrified of SIDS, and avoided bedsharing completely. I forced myself (and my baby) to adhere to a gruelling nightly routine where I would feed and burp him, before desperately trying to get him into his moses basket without him noticing. I’d lean right over into his cot and slowly slide my arm out from underneath his body, hopeful that he was firmly planted in the land of nod. I’d rest my head on my pillow, but just as I’d close my eyes, my heart would sink as I’d hear him cry and I’d sit back up, try to comfort him, fail, and resort to taking him back out of his cot again to rock him to sleep and try again to get him to settle on his own. Most of the night would be spent awake, in agony from the lack of sleep, nodding off in the sitting position while holding the baby, and generally wanting to die to escape the torture of it all.
This time around, with my daughter, I am doing things differently. I never particularly planned to bedshare with her, but after night one at home, I intuitively decided that it was what we were going to do. The three nights we spent in hospital had given me a false sense of security; she would sleep in her perspex crib without any issue, to the point that I would have to set an alarm to wake up every two hours to feed her. She didn’t cry, and seemed perfectly happy to be put down and left on her own.
It didn’t last. Once home, a switch was flicked inside her tiny brain, and she suddenly found her voice. After one night trying to make her sleep in her moses basket to no avail, I realised that, with not just a newborn, but a boisterous toddler to look after as well, I simply couldn’t spend all night, every night, awake, trying to soothe the youngest one to sleep. I had also learnt, from my first round with a newborn two years earlier, that tiny babies simply love close contact. There is nothing wrong with them, there is nothing wrong with you, it’s normal. They are tiny, utterly helpless, and have just spent 10 months living inside you, so it figures that they prefer to be up close to you, with your warm skin, your regular heartbeat and the comfort of knowing you are there to protect them.
If you’re going to bedshare, then it’s very important you do it safely. The fact that so much of the available advice explicitly warns parents off bedsharing, while ignoring the fact that so many end up doing it anyway, simply makes the whole thing more dangerous. Sitting up in bed, trying to soothe a baby to sleep while nodding off yourself is far more risky than planning for bedsharing and setting up your bed properly for the two of you to sleep comfortably and safely.
Planning to bedshare safely
Being properly prepared for co-sleeping and planning for it, rather than ending up slumped over in bed with your baby in your arms through sheer exhaustion, is obviously the safer approach, so here is a breakdown of how I prepare my bed for sharing, which you’re welcome to use as a starting point for setting up your own bedroom. Please note that I am NOT a co-sleeping expert or medical professional, so please also consult official resources such as Lullaby Trust, La Leche or the NHS when making the decision to bedshare or co-sleep.
1. Decide if you and your partner are happy to sleep separately
The first step for me was agreeing with my partner to sleep in separate bedrooms while the baby is very small. This was easy for us as we have two bedrooms, and he was already sleeping in the other room with our son, and had been since I became pregnant and needed to use my (huge) pregnancy pillows (which left little room for him!). If you prefer to stay in the same bed as your partner, do your own research on bedsharing with two parents and make sure you have enough room to do it safely and without the risk of overheating or suffocation. If you do have the option to sleep in separate rooms, I highly recommend you consider it, as in my experience, it makes those newborn weeks a whole lot easier.
2. Remove pillows and duvet from the bed
The next thing I did was remove the pillows and the duvet from my bed, and make sure that the bed’s surface was firm and flat, with no sheets flapping about. If you have a mattress topper, or a particularly squidgy mattress protector, consider removing them if they create too much of an uneven surface. Basically, you are trying to avoid any chance of the baby’s face or head being covered or immersed in bedding, and you’re removing any risk of them overheating.
3. Place muslin cloths where baby will sleep
Next, I placed two muslins in the middle of the bed which act as a ‘landing spot’ for the baby, and are great for protecting the sheet and mattress from the inevitable spit-ups and nappy leaks. Flatten and straighten them out so they are not posing a risk to baby’s airways. This is where I position the baby to sleep.
4. Use a J Pillow
Then, for my ‘pillow’ I use the J Pillow travel pillow which hooks under my chin and is small and compact enough not to pose a risk to the baby. Because most co-sleeping warnings cite suffocation from pillows as one possible cause of SIDS, you want to find a solution that ideally doesn’t involve a big, fluffy pillow that could move over the baby’s head or face while they sleep.
5. Dress baby lightly
Next I dress the baby. I keep her totally separate from me in terms of her bed clothes, so that there is no risk of her sliding underneath my duvet or blanket. Depending on the temperature of the room, I will dress the baby in a combination of a vest, babygrow and sleeping bag, but you should check the temperature of your room and the thickness of your baby’s clothing to dress him or her appropriately. As a guide, my room is currently about 19-20 degrees at night, so I put the baby in a short-sleeved vest, a babygrow and a 1-tog Swaddle UP sleeping bag from Love to Dream. NOTE that the use of swaddles when bedsharing is NOT recommended, so please do your own research before using a Swaddle UP bag or any other swaddle.
I use Love to Dream’s temperature guide to help me decide how to dress my baby for sleep, and the rule of thumb is always to lean towards dressing them a bit lighter if they are sharing a bed with you, as your body heat will be increasing their temperature, and you want to avoid them overheating. Note also that the use of hats is NOT recommended once babies come out of hospital, and their heads should be clear of any covering (including your arm or face) to enable them to regulate their temperature by losing heat through their head.
6. Sleep facing baby
I always sleep facing the baby, as this way she can breastfeed throughout the night and I can be in a safe position without the risk of rolling back onto her. Facing your baby also means you’re more aware of him or her and their little noises and movements. I place her on her back, with her head turned towards my breast so that she can feed. If I ever turn her onto her front during the night to burp her or relieve wind, I always prop myself up on my arm to ensure that I don’t fall back to sleep and forget to return her to her back. On your side, facing baby, you can bend your top leg forward to stabilise yourself if you find that more comfortable and I normally hook my bottom arm underneath my J Pillow and tuck my top arm down my side, between my body and the baby. This is so that I don’t risk dropping my arms on top of her during the night.
7. Duvet should only come up to your waist
Now I arrange my duvet. Because heavy bedding such as duvets pose a significant risk to the baby if they slip underneath it, I make sure my duvet comes up no further than my waist, well away from her face. I also wrap the duvet (and blanket) tightly around my body like a burrito, and as I sleep facing the baby, I tuck all the loose ends firmly under my back/bottom, ensuring there are no flappy bits on the baby’s side. The bunched up duvet along my back and bottom also gives me some support to keep me in the side-sleeping position, and gives some extra warmth along my non-baby side. As the weather gets warmer, I will ditch the blanket and eventually the duvet, and just do the same burrito wrapping with a thin sheet instead.
8. Dress yourself in layers to keep warm
Depending on the weather, you may find that it’s too cold to sleep with your duvet or blanket only pulled up to your waist; I certainly do at the moment. To remedy this, I wear a few layers of clothes as my pyjamas; a nursing camisole underneath one or two button-down cotton nighties, some PJ pants and a cardigan. Make sure that none of your clothes are so loose that they could drop or fall over your baby’s face during the night. If you’re particularly worried, you could pull your arm out of the clothes on the side facing your baby, and pull them underneath you to the opposite side of your body, out the way of your baby altogether, as I have done in the pictures above. This also makes your breast readily available to the baby throughout the night if you are a breastfeeding mum.
9. Have handy items within reach
Finally, I find it useful to keep boxes of handy items such as nappies, spare muslins etc on the bed as well, far enough away from the baby not to cause any issues. I will write a separate blog listing all these items, as it really does make the 1am and 3am wake-up calls a lot easier if everything you need is within easy reach! What I will say with regards to safe bedsharing is that one essential item is the room temperature gauge pictured above; I use it every evening to check the room temperature and to make sure I’m not overdressing the baby.
That’s it! Good luck setting up your room for bedsharing if that’s what you decide to do, and remember, if you have any concerns at all please speak to your GP, midwife or health visitor for advice. You can also find useful safety information at Lullaby Trust, La Leche or the NHS.
Some great Instagrammers who advocate bedsharing are @taylorkulik and @ashleylouisejames. Check them out for great advice and tips.