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Bed-sharing when Breastfeeding: Why it’s different

In western society the subject of bed-sharing, a form of co-sleeping, is highly controversial. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that Bed-Sharing continues to be the biggest factor in sleep-related infant deaths. However, their recommendation fails to look at research that divides the data between breastfeeding infants and bottle fed infants. The physiological relationship between mother and infant is different when they are a nursing pair. For the purpose of this blog I will focus on the research happening at the University of Notre Dame’s Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory.  James McKenna, Ph.D. says, “to understand the likely causes of most sleep-related deaths it is not enough to know simply where or with whom the infant was sleeping; but rather one must know how the infant was sleeping, and in this case, how the bed-sharing was being practiced because bedsharing is not a simple, or singular behavior. Bedsharing is composed of many different behaviors.” Dr. McKenna’s data shows that bottle-fed babies should not bed-share. Bed-sharing is safest for the breastfeeding pair.

This 18-minute video with James McKenna, Ph.D. is well worth the watch for any breastfeeding parent contemplating bed-sharing. Below this clip I offer five facts that differentiate bed-sharing while breastfeeding from bed-sharing while bottle-feeding.



    Breast milk is well-known as ready-made nutrition that is easily digestible for infants. Because of it's ease in digestibility, baby must eat more often when breastfeeding, as frequently as every hour and a half. At night, this frequent arousal to feed prevents baby from falling into a deep sleep cycle for hours at a time and it is believed that this constant arousal - whether co-sleeping or not - is what helps protect the breastfeeding infant from SIDS. Dr. McKenna says, “arousals lead to the baby breathing more stably over time, and to more variable heart rates and breathing.” An infant is not meant to sleep through the night. When sleeping next to mom, the familiar scents and sounds of mom are soothing and mom is also more easily aroused and sleeps less soundly in response to her infants needs. 


      When a nursing pair co-sleep on a safe bed clear of debris, they turn towards one another not away. An infant must always sleep on his back. But, the difference between a breastfeeding baby and a bottle feeding one in this instance is that when a sleeping breastfed baby arouses to eat he will turn towards his mother for nourishment, knowing that she is the source. A bottle-feeding baby turns randomly to different sides in search of a bottle and mother may be unaware because there is no hyperawareness against her skin when her baby attempts to latch on for nourishment.


        A breastfed baby is positioned lower in the bed. Typically beneath the mother’s armpit at breast height. Mother tends to curl around the baby in a protective manner. Bottle-fed babies tend to be positioned higher in the bed and closer to pillows. Sometimes even on top of a pillow for ease of feeding. Placement close to or on pillows and blankets contributes to the dangers of SIDS.

        Systems Development

          Dr. McKenna says that infant’s require contact and close-proximity because of an infant’s “immaturity of their thermo-regulatory, immune and cardio-respiratory systems, in addition to their dependence on touch, all systems closely tied together to promote efficient functioning of all of the infant’s immature organs and the central nervous system in general. Science is now beginning to recognize that infants should not sleep out of the sensory range of their primary caregiver. Sleeping close helps the baby regulate breathing - protecting him from any apnea episodes. It helps regulate body temperature. Infants are not yet able to shiver or self regulate. In Kangaroo Care studies science has even learned that a mother’s breasts will heat and cool independently in response their infant’s thermo-regulatory needs.

          According to the University of Notre Dame, “At least three epidemiological studies show that infants sleeping close to an active, caregiver, and potentially able to exchange sensory stimuli (combining periodic touch, vision, smells, vocalizations, movement cues, breathing sounds, CO2 gas, as well as breastmilk) on close but separate surfaces cuts an infant’s chances of dying from SIDS or from some other asphyxia event anywhere from a third to a half (see Carpenter et al. 2004; Mitchell and Thompson 1995; Blair et al. 1995).”

          Safe-Sleeping Matters

            Make sure you understand what constitutes a safe sleeping situation for you and your infant.

            -You must be a breastfeeding pair

            -You must not be a mother who smoked during pregnancy or now during the child’s infancy

            -Keep pillows and blankets away from your baby

            - Purchase a co-sleeper that keeps your baby close but on a separate surface.

            - Always place baby on his back to sleep.

            -Test your bed to make sure it’s firm enough for safe sleep for baby 

            Find more tips on safe co-sleeping with your breastfed baby HERE:


            Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer and mother of three. If you liked this posting please follow her on Twitter @writerbonnie or like her on Facebook at for more great info on Raising Kids.  


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