A South African doctor has suggested that it is beneficial for mothers and their newborn babies to share a bed. The benefits, he says, could easily outweigh the risks.
Pediatrician Dr. Nils Bergman of the University of Cape Town’s message to new mothers is that sleeping with their newborn baby is good for the infant’s cardiovascular health, their quality of sleep, and even for parent-baby bonding.
Dr. Bergman studied 16 two-day-old babies during his 2011 study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. Mom-baby separation is a “Western norm,” Dr. Bergman said, but the physiological impact of this practice has long been unknown.
The study’s 16 newborn babies slept skin-to-skin on their mother’s chest for one hour and in a cot beside her bed for one hour before being discharged from hospital. During this time, constant heart rate monitoring revealed a 176 percent increase in stress response when the babies slept alone.
Sleeping alone in a cot also had a profoundly negative impact upon the duration of the babies’ sleep. Dr. Bergman’s babies experienced an 86 percent decrease in “quiet sleep” duration when sleeping without their mothers. Quiet sleep is necessary for normal, healthy development.
However, when the babies slept on their mothers’ chests, they exhibited fewer signs of stress, slept more peacefully, and slept for longer periods of time during each sleep cycle. “Maternal separation may be a stressor the human neonate is not well-evolved to cope with,” Dr. Bergman concluded.
Dr. Bergman has long been an advocate for close contact between mothers and their babies. However, his findings are controversial among parents who have been advised to sleep separately from their newborns.
Numerous studies have linked bed-sharing with an increased risk of cot death, and many mothers have grown afraid of the potential for rolling over and smothering their child in the middle of the night.
A 2016 study by Per Möllborg of the University of Gothenberg found that “more lives could potentially be saved if fewer babies slept on their stomachs or were placed on their sides, if fewer mothers smoked during pregnancy, and if infants slept in their own beds in their parents’ bedroom during the first three months.”
The United Kingdom’s National Childbirth Trust acknowledges both sides of the argument. “The safest place for your baby to sleep in their first six months is in a separate Moses basket or cot in the same room as you,” they advise.
“But at some point in the first few months after having a baby,” they allow, “around half of all parents in the U.K. co-sleep or bed share with their newborn.” The very best way to do this, they say, is fourfold.
1. Make sure your baby cannot fall out of bed, or become trapped between the mattress and the wall.
2. Keep bedclothes away from your baby to avoid overheating or obstructing their breathing.
3. Avoid letting pets or other children sleep in the bed with mom and baby at the same time.
4. Always put your baby to sleep on their back.
“All the mother has to do is just hold her baby and love her baby,” Dr. Bergman adds, in a video about his theory of the importance of skin-to-skin contact on YouTube.
“When baby is born,” he continues, “one of the things that we would want to say to moms and dads is that this baby knows mom […] ‘mom tells me I’m safe.’”