I decided to consider the Attachment Parenting principle of “Ensure Safe Sleep” and do a little presentation of exactly how we cosleep safely, and have since Mikko was born three years ago.
Now, other attachment parents choose different sleep setups — see Amber Strocel’s excellent and picture-filled guest post on “Flexibility and finding sleep” for a rundown of some of the most common options — so this post isn’t meant to be prescriptive but rather to spark ideas for how you might put together a safe cosleeping environment that works for you. We have chosen to share one family bed for the three of us, and this is how we’ve managed it successfully.
I’m going to start with making the mama comfortable, because there’s no point being miserable while you cosleep! I like to use three pillows (count ‘em!), down for safety reasons from the five pillows I used to support my aching bulk during my last pregnancy. I put one pillow under my head, one behind my back, and one between my knees. Here’s a little more on each:
- Head pillow: Some cosleepers swear off all pillows at head level due to smothering concerns. I am a very stationary sleeper, and I keep my pillow tucked behind my head as I sleep and rest my cheek on the very corner (or did when Mikko was a newborn, at least; I’m not worried anymore now that he’s a very sturdy 3). I also keep one arm up that by default holds the pillow in place. It’s up to you whether you feel comfortable using a head pillow, but if you do, some simple precautions like that are wise.
- Back pillow: I sleep on my side so I can nurse lying down. I give my back some support by really wedging a pillow into the small of my back. Not gently — shove it on down there! I use a regular bed pillow, but other mamas find a firmer or different shaped pillow works better for them; you can try out sofa cushions and bolsters and other decorative pillows and see. I need the pillow to stay put — I found out from hotel travel that it otherwise doesn’t unless I have something firm behind it to push against. In my case, it’s a trunk that doubles as my nightstand. For you, it might be a wall or other furniture.
- Knee pillow: I use a folded-up body pillow, because that’s what I have. I think a regular bed pillow would work just the same, or a specialty knee pillow might be even cozier. (I’ve coveted them a time or two!) The reason for a knee pillow is it better aligns your hips, to help keep both your back and your hips from aching. At first I used to not like having my knees separated, but I’m so used to it now that when I don’t have the pillow between them all I can feel is knobbiness, and my hips immediately protest!
As long as you keep the back pillow behind your back (including switching sides with it if you do the same with your nursing baby; I just lean over farther to change breasts), neither the back pillow nor the knee pillow should pose a safety risk. What they will do is let you nurse and sleep comfortably!
All right, besides the pillows, you can see the brown text that shows where the baby would go. I forgot to put down the wool puddle pad blanket we used when Mikko was still doing elimination communication and cloth diapering, and I’m not retaking the picture, so too bad. I also forgot to airbrush out my fabulous Pirate’s Booty temporary tattoo on my hand, so there’s that.
But, anyway, the wool blanket we have is soft and thin organic merino wool and will help protect your sheets from leaks of breastmilk or accidental pees if you keep it well lanolized. If you get the baby/crib size blanket, it can lie flat underneath you and your baby, so your weight can help keep it in place. I never saw our wool blanket shift on our flannel sheets in any way that would put it dangerously close to our baby’s face.
When the baby is breastfeeding, the head will be even with your breasts, but I found that Mikko liked to push up afterward and sleep closer to the top of the mattress. For that reason, make sure there are no gaps between your mattress and the wall or headboard. I actually do see one in this picture, which shows you how cavalier we can be now we have a preschooler in bed instead of a newborn! But you should do as I say and not as I do and all that.
Here I am pretending to sleep. Why? I have no idea.
And here’s the part where I read the captions to you.
If you have long hair, tie your hair back in a braid or ponytail. There’s otherwise a small risk of strangling your baby with your own hair. (I mean, seriously, could Edgar Allan Poe devise anything more horrifying?)
Pull the blankets up so that they come up roughly to your waist or chest, and the same on your baby. Keep them below armpit level on your baby in any case. Often, Mikko had no blankets on him (by choice), but he has always been a very warm little guy.
In the picture, I’m safely using just a thin sheet. In real life (ahem), I use a feather duvet. I leave that to your discretion. I usually pulled the duvet over just me, and used a smaller and lighter baby blanket to cover Mikko’s legs.
To keep my upper body warm, I wear a long-sleeve button-down pajama shirt — flannel men’s shirt in the winter, and thinner cotton ladies’ one in the summer.
Keep in mind that cosleeping babies don’t need to be as bundled as solitary-sleeping ones. To keep a cosleeping baby warm, we found that in the summer only a t-shirt and diaper were necessary. In the winter, we go with a long-sleeve close-fitting t-shirt, and long pajama pants now that he’s potty trained. Before that, we just kept him in a diaper or nakey-butt to make nighttime pottying or changing easier on our groggy selves. You can use BabyLegs or similar to keep warm any little legs that regularly kick the blankets off.
Speaking of grogginess, I can’t be bothered with fancy-schmancey nursing nightwear with holes and clasps. Under my opened button-down shirt, I wear a stretchy camisole with shelf bra, the kind you buy in three-packs at Costco. Through experience, I’ve found it’s more comfortable on my shoulder to take down the strap that’s on the bottom arm before I go to sleep so it doesn’t dig in. Then, throughout the night, as Mikko rolls over to nurse, I just slide one or the other breast out the top of the cami’s neckline. Easy as pie! In the days I was leaking, the slight pressure of the cami, plus the dual layers of the shelf bra it contains, was enough to contain most breastmilk leakage.
Pants for the mother are optional. I just had to say it. I do tuck any drawstrings into the waistband, so that they’re not a choking hazard.
Here’s something you can’t really see from the picture, but we have a king-size mattress set directly on the floor, no boxspring or bedframe. Behind my back, I have this awesome foam bed rail from gobedbug.com. Because it goes underneath the fitted bottom sheet, I feel it’s safer than a traditional bed rail because there are no gaps for a baby to roll against and perhaps get caught in and suffocate. I put that at the foot of the trunk behind my back to afford a little more roll-off protection on that side.
However, from the time I got down side-lying nursing, I’ve kept Mikko comfortably ensconced between Sam and me in the middle, so there’s no rolling off to contend with. For absolute safety, I’ve heard not to let babies sleep next to partners, other non-mama adults (babysitters, grandparents, etc.), or other children; while I agree with keeping fragile babies separate from toddlers who sleep like butterflies, I think the decision on whether your partner is a safe cosleeping companion is something the two of you have to consider for yourselves. My father, for instance, routinely acts out violence in his sleep (there are many mostly funny family stories about his sleepwalking exploits); I would never recommend that a non-mother who sleepwalks, acts out dreams, or rolls around vigorously be placed next to a vulnerable baby. (Breastfeeding mothers, on the other hand, have protective instincts activated through breastfeeding and can cosleep safely, assuming they’re not under the influence of any arousal-affecting drugs or medications.)
With Sam, on the other hand, I had no reason, over our nine years of marriage thus far, to suspect him of nocturnal turbulence. He sleeps on the very far side of the bed and stays there the whole night. (Doesn’t that sound romantic! Truthfully, before cosleeping, we used to snuggle for the first half-hour or so and then part ways to actually sleep.)
To be absolutely certain, we bought the king-size mattress so that there are literally feet of room between us, and Mikko as a baby stayed nice and squished up on my side of the bed. Sam’s pillows and blankets were far away, though I would always make sure of that fact before and during the night.
Another crucial way to ensure safe sleeping with a partner is to make sure your partner is aware of the baby’s presence in bed and takes equal responsibility for the baby’s safety. Don’t bring the baby in while your partner’s asleep, for instance; make sure both of your are conscious of the newborn in bed if your partner is near enough to roll over or fling a blanket that direction.
So that’s what I’ve got! This is the way we’ve been able to cosleep safely. I look forward to redesigning our sleep situation once we add our next newborn to the mix…
Here my 3-year-old decides to “help” me with my tutorial …
… and settles in for a snack.
A big thanks to the patient Sam for being our photographer!
For more on the benefits of cosleeping, read my winning essay on why I love cosleeping so much.
What type of cosleeping or other sleeping arrangements have worked for you? Any tips to share?
In sharing how they do things in their families, authors are not trying to suggest the same choices are right for you. Please consider the safety issues, and take all precautions when considering where your children will sleep. There might be increased risk for babies under six months regardless of how bed sharing is done. In such cases, a separate safe sleeping surface might be a better choice. Statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products and/or information are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease. Readers are advised to do their own research and make decisions in partnership with their health care provider. If you are pregnant, are nursing, have a medical condition, or are taking any medication, please consult your physician. Nothing you read here should be relied upon to determine dietary changes, a medical diagnosis, or courses of treatment.