At a party earlier this fall, about a month or so after my third baby was born, I was chatting with a mom who had also just had a baby. She asked how often my son was nursing at night.
"I'm not exactly sure," I said. "He sleeps in bed with me and I let him nurse while I sleep, so I lose track of how often he eats throughout the night." As soon as I answered her, I could tell I had made a mistake. I watched her try to pretend what I said didn’t bother her, but I could tell that she felt uncomfortable.
I "breastsleep" with my son, a term coined by James McKenna, Ph.D., a sleep expert at the University of Notre Dame, to describe a combination of breastfeeding and co-sleeping. While not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastsleeping is practiced by many new moms, in part as a matter of convenience (it's easier to feed in the middle of the night if you don't have to go to the next room to your baby's crib) and in part as a way to increase the bond between mother and child.
My decision to breastsleep was not a spontaneous one. I debated it extensively before I decided to do it with each of my children, and I don't regret it for a second — even though with my third child, I did it after my doctors explicitly told me not to.
I started breastsleeping long before I even knew it was a thing. When I became a mom for the first time, I started sleeping with my daughter while nursing her two or three months after she was born. I was dangerously exhausted due to a strict breastfeeding and pumping schedule prescribed by my lactation consultant, and I had started to fall asleep while nursing in unsafe situations. When I barely caught her rolling off my lap after falling sleeping in a rocking chair, I knew something had to change.
So I asked my husband, who is a heavy sleeper, to temporarily move to the spare bed to make bed-sharing safer for the baby. I had read about safe co-sleeping practices prescribed by parenting experts like Dr. Sears, such as removing blankets and extra pillows from the bed and only co-sleeping if you aren't drinking alcohol or taking medications that might make you drowsy, so I adhered to that advice as well. I breastslept with both of my first two children for months, and it never felt like I was even remotely putting them in jeopardy.
The staff at the hospital asked me to sign an agreement stating that I would not share a bed with my child before I was discharged.
After my third child was born, however, the staff at the hospital asked me to sign an agreement stating that I would not share a bed with my child before I was discharged. They told me that bed-sharing put babies at risk for SIDS, so it was best to keep them in their own cribs instead, and they wanted me to sign the agreement to make sure I was committed to keeping my children safe.
At the time, I had every intention of continuing to breastsleep with my son (in fact, I had co-slept with him while nursing him during our very first night in the hospital). Nonetheless, I signed the agreement, too exhausted and distracted to really think about what I was committing to.
When I brought my son home, the formality of having to sign a contract agreeing not to co-sleep prompted me to think twice about the habit. But I eventually realized that even though the doctors didn't want me to do it, co-sleeping and breastfeeding was the right choice for me. Not only did it allow me to get more sleep, but I had also grown to enjoy feeling close to my children, which is especially important to me now that my attention is now split between three children. I realized that I felt completely comfortable with co-sleeping: it was the fear of being judged by my doctors that had led me to sign the agreement.
Honestly, breastsleeping is what keeps me from becoming dangerously exhausted.
Despite what that woman at the party might've thought about my decision to breastsleep, it wasn’t some off-the-cuff choice I made. I was (and am) very aware of the risks: for instance, I never co-sleep if I’ve been drinking, and if I’m really exhausted, I move my baby to a bassinet. But honestly, breastsleeping is what keeps me from becoming dangerously exhausted.
I understand that breastsleeping isn’t the right choice for everyone, and I know that some people look down on me for my choice to continue this habit with each kid. Still, I don’t have any regrets about my choice. I know this is how both my child and I get the most sleep, and I will continue to breastsleep until he starts sleeping through the night, even if that means going against my doctor’s orders.