When my son was born, I was determined to be successful at breastfeeding. I had a breast pump and an elaborate feeding schedule, which was meticulously outlined in various Excel spreadsheets. From the very beginning, my son was a champ. We had minimal latch issues (he wasn't crazy about my right breast, but we powered through) and he could be perfectly content spending all of his time hanging out on the boob all day.
We were well into our breastfeeding journey in October 2015, when anthropologists James McKenna and Lee Gettler first coined the term “breastsleeping" in the medical journal Acta Paediatrica. According to McKenna and Gettler, "breastsleeping" refers to the practice of the mother breastfeeding the child while he or she sleeps with her in bed. The study highlighted all of the well-known benefits of breastfeeding, and also pointed out that bed-sharing, when done correctly, could also be beneficial. "The researchers hope to legitimize [breastsleeping] to accommodate and support the millions of American breastfeeding mothers who bedshare as they better manage their milk supply, get more sleep, strengthen their attachments and validate their roles as mothers," the researchers wrote.
At the time, my son was 2 years old, and we had been breastsleeping since he was about 3 months old. McKenna and Gettler were preaching to the choir: breastsleeping was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and I thought it was an awesome way to connect with my son.
I hadn't initially intended to breastsleep. Right after my son was born, I decided that I didn't want to nurse him to sleep, in part because I wanted him to be able to be put to sleep by other people. But that didn't last long. He was miserable, and he'd scream and cry if I tried to give him a pacifier. I considered bringing him into bed to put him to sleep, but my pediatrician had told me that he was not allowed to sleep on his belly, and definitely not in bed with me. I was an eager beaver and obviously I didn't want to kill my baby, so I did everything she told me to do.
When he was 10 weeks old, however, my son stopped taking naps, and it was beginning to take a toll on both of us. He was waking every two to three hours a night, and I wasn't sleeping nearly enough.
I felt like a zombie. I knew something had to be done.
For those first few months, my son slept in his Fisher Price Rock 'n' Play sleeper. It had been recommended by several friends who had babies close to the same age. It was snuggly, it vibrated, and I could move it around the house if I needed. I kept it right next to the bed so I didn't have to go far to feed him in the middle of the night. I also had a lamp and back pillow to be able to prop myself up while he nursed. At the hospital, they'd scared me by telling me I could drop or suffocate the baby if I fell asleep while nursing, so I did everything I could to keep myself up, but then I'd have trouble going back to sleep when I was done.
I felt like a zombie. I knew something had to be done. So one early morning after a feeding, I just decided to lay my son in my bed with me. I cleared off the comforter and tightened the sheet and lay down next to him. We both slept so much better.
At first, I only did this in the early morning and afternoon. But then it dawned on me: if this worked so well during the day, why wouldn't it work at night? That way we could both be comfortable, and I didn't have to stimulate him with the lights and noise I needed to keep myself awake.
So I tried nursing my son while I co-slept with him. Immediately, it made a huge difference. He was still sleeping the same amount of time, but the changes I noticed in myself were instantaneous. Not physically getting up to nurse him allowed me to get back to sleep immediately after he was finished. I couldn't believe it had taken me so long to try this.
People all over the world have been breastsleeping for hundreds of years.
Although I was blown away by how much breastsleeping changed my life, it's definitely not a new concept. People all over the world have been breastsleeping for hundreds of years. It's also not uncontroversial: over the past few decades, there hasn't been a firm consensus within the pediatric community as to whether or not bed-sharing is safe for infants. Bed-sharing is still discouraged for infants under six months old, according to the National Institute of Health's Safe to Sleep campaign, which aims to reduce the rate of SIDS.
My son is now 3 years old, and he still doesn't sleep through the night. But because we share a bed, the stretches of sleep have gotten longer as he's gotten older. We nurse at night and he doesn't even really fully wake. He seeks out the breast almost entirely by smell, nurses, and then goes back to sleep. I wake up enough to help him get situated and then when he finishes I drift back off myself.
While I never imagined I would still be nursing a 3-year-old, I also don't want to force him to wean before he's ready, so I have no regrets. I know that one of the main reasons we've had such a successful breastfeeding journey has been breastsleeping. Regardless of what some experts say about breastsleeping, once I started doing it I started getting more rest, and I was able to be a more present parent in my day-to-day life.