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Should bedsharing/ co-sleeping only be for breastfed babies?

April 30, 2012

I think it’s time to look at this issue a little more, of all the things I write about unbelievably the most contentious is my suggestion that only mothers who are breastfeeding should share a bed with their baby. In fact I have received a fair deal of angry backlash in response to this, mostly by mothers who think I am being “anti formula feeding” and spreading incorrect information, so I think the time has come for this idea to have it’s own blog post.

So – why do I believe that mothers should only share a bed with their baby if they are breastfeeding? Particularly when most of the safe co-sleeping/bedsharing guidelines omit this point.

Let me start by saying I believe this is an area that is in desperate need of further research, I am still saddened that bedsharing research misses the most important points, it is VITAL that well constructed research is undertaken accounting for all of these variables, but most importantly accounting for feeding method.

Before I go further I would like to quickly point out the following:

Bedsharing – sharing a bed with your infant

Co-Sleeping – sharing a room with your infant

I have used the term co-sleeping in the title of this post purely for SEO purposes.

The following are reasons you may want to think again if you you formula feed and share a bed with your baby:

1) Formula fed babies are at greater risk of SIDS than breastfed babies (wherever they sleep). See here for more. It makes sense to me then to be warier of introducing anything that may further compound this risk, with this in mind alone it is vital that if sharing a bed with a formula fed baby every single safety recommendation for bedsharing is followed exactly.

2) Formula fed babies are in general less arousable than breastfed babies during certain phases of sleep, this means that babies who are formula fed tend to awaken less readily than those who are breastfed if there is a threat to their life during certain sleep phases (this may be in part a reason for point 1 above). In particular this difference is seen the most during active sleep states at 2-3mths, which is the peak SIDS risk period.

3) Mothers who breastfeed experience different sleep to those who formula feed and awaken more regularly than formula feeding mothers during the night. Breastfeeding mothers seem to be more in tune with their baby during the night and as such may be more arousable than mothers who formula feed and may be more likely to awaken if there baby stops breathing/falls etc.

I guess the problem comes when we feed our babies via another method than nature intended – nature understandably does not then provide the same protection and it is important we respect that.

To quote from University of Notre-Dame’s Sleep Lab’s website:

“all else being safe, bed-sharing among nonsmoking mothers who sleep on firm mattresses specifically for purposes of breast feeding, may be the most ideal form of bed-sharing where both mother and baby can benefit by, among other things, the baby getting more of mother’s precious milk and both mothers and babies getting more sleep – two findings which emerged from our own studies.”

Here’s a great video interview with Dr. James McKenna where he speaks more about breastfeeding mothers bedsharing and SIDS:

4) Mothers who breastfeed are far more likely to adopt a cradling/side laying position with their baby (the advised position to adopt when sharing a bed with your baby) and are more responsive to their baby’s movements in the night – this is currently being researched by two centres – Durham University sleep lab in the UK and James McKenna’s sleep laboratory in the University of Notre Dame.

For all of the reasons above I personally only feel confident in advocating bedsharing if the mother is breastfeeding, however unpopular my opinion may be, it has nothing to do with my opinions on breastfeeding V formula feeding (for the record I don’t have one – I have 4 kids, one was breastfed for 4mths, then moved onto formula, one was breastfed for 8wks, then moved onto formula, one was breastfed until 6mths and the last I breastfed for 4yrs!) and everything to do with keeping babies safe.


Sarah (Founder of BabyCalm)

You can read more of Sarah’s articles HERE.



  1. Horne RSParslow PMHarding R. Respiratory control and arousal in sleeping infants. Paediatr Respir Rev. 2004 Sep;5(3):190-8.
  2. McKenna JJ, McDade T. Why babies should never sleep alone: a review of the co-sleeping controversy in relation to SIDS, bedsharing and breast feeding. Paediatr Respir Rev. 2005 Jun;6(2):134-52.
  4. Parslow PMFerens DWatts AMAdamson TM. Comparison of evoked arousability in breast and formula fed infants. Arch Dis Child. 2004 Jan;89(1):22-5.
  7. Kahn AGroswasser JFranco PScaillet SSawaguchi TKelmanson IDan B. Sudden infant deaths: stress, arousal and SIDS. Early Hum Dev. 2003 Dec;75 Suppl:S147-66.
8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2012 11:00 am

    My devil’s advocate position:

    My opinion on this issue aside momentarily; I personally find this post very disempowering to parents. I know it is difficult to hold opinions that you believe in firmly (as we all do) AND support parents in an empowering way; I often have this conflict in my own job supporting families and it’s one of the hardest things I have to do sometimes. However every individual and every family is so exceptionally different from one situation to the next that we can never really hope to accurately judge a situation with sweeping statements based on statistics. Shouldn’t we be more focused on encouraging parents to tune in to their own intuition and make decisions that are right for *their family*.

    I appreciate the points you are making, but does it bother you that there may be an entire host of would-be formula feeding bed-sharers that may have been able to practise this in an entirely safe and happy way that might have read this blog and decided against it simply because they trust your word and/or statistics more than they trust their own instincts? In this world where there are so many advice-pushing experts (I’m not saying you’re one of these, but you know who I’m referring to!) out there telling parents what to do with conflicting advice, it’s no surprise that people wobble in their trust of their own intuition. My firm opinion (and granted, it is just an opinion) is that a true supporter does not tell a parent what is best for them to do, they simply quietly empower a parent to find out for themselves.

    I know you cannot disprove statistics with anecdotal evidence so I’m not trying to do that here, but I just want to respond to certain sweeping statements in your post, in particular your opening statements to points 3 and 4, with a personal example that displays the fact that this doesn’t always have to be the case. I coslept with my first child who was mixed fed until 12 weeks and formula fed after that (due to a whole host of problems rather than choice, not that it’s relevant) and found that I was hyper-aware of his every movement during the night. I never slept deeply and was so in-tune to his every breath and movement it was unbelievable. I always cradled around him and virtually never moved during the night. On the other hand I exclusively breastfed my now-16 month and am still breastfeeding him now, we are also full-time bed-sharers. I sleep like a log next to him and I have to say that I’m nowhere near as in-tune with his nightly movements as I was with my first. Perhaps because I don’t actually have to wake to feed him unlike my first child.

    I’m not saying this now proves that the stats are wrong, of course it doesn’t. I’m just using it as an example of a time when the statistics don’t apply to an individual, and when maternal intuition is best. (Btw, I am still confident that I am in-tune enough with my breastfed child to be safe sleeping next to him in case anybody wonders, I just don’t have the hyper awareness I did with my first). Maybe if this post had been around 4 years ago I’d have read it and never bed-shared, and missed out on a wonderful experience that helped me to bond beautifully with my baby after a rocky start due to a traumatic birth and breastfeeding failure. What would have been better is a post that would have helped me to tune into my own instincts and to trust them, but fortunately I didn’t encounter either so I did the latter naturally.

    There will always be people out there who cannot safely bed-share and therefore should not. Perhaps statistically more of them are formula feeders than breastfeeders, but is it right to cut off all formula feeders as collateral damage just to catch those few? How is that any different to, say, cutting off all over 40s from having a home birth, or all breech babies from a vaginal birth, just because there are certain studies (which are always subject to improvement and change) that say the risks for some will be higher… without looking at the individual circumstances? And where do we then draw the line? There are some breastfeeders out there who can’t safely bed-share for various reasons, shall we just cut out bed-sharing all together (as many of course actually advise) to catch those minorities as well? Who gets to decide where the right place to draw the line is? Wouldn’t be better to encourage parents to trust their instincts and trust that they will know if it’s the right or wrong thing to do with their own baby?

    That’s my view anyway, as I said, just playing the amicable devil’s advocate!

    • April 30, 2012 11:14 am

      I do see what you are saying, but to me safety is paramount and I have clearly stated this is my personal opinion – not advice.

      In answer to your question should we cut out bedsharing altogether? No of course not – quite conversely I would like to see rates in the developed world rise, but I personally feel it is vital that ‘we’ work more to raise awareness of risk factors (and de-bunking current myths that it is universally unsafe and psychologically damaging!) and instead raise knowledge of how to make sharing a bed with your baby safer. I appreciate your anecdotal evidence, but in the greater picture it is meaningless and irrelevant, I know plenty of 90 yr olds who smoke 20 cigarettes per day and are alive and healthy – does that mean we should ignore the science on the risks of smoking because of personal experience? and the evidence does support the idea that bedsharing is riskier if you formula feed.

      Of course it is up to the individual parent to decide what to do with that information and the myriad of personal circumstances will mean no decision is right for all, it’s safer for a formula feeding mum to sleep in a bed with their baby following all other guidelines than to fall asleep out of exhaustion with them on a sofa for instance, but they could potentially make it even safer by using a co-sleeper cot next to their bed than putting the baby into bed with them. That is my point.

    • April 30, 2012 11:16 am

      p.s: points 3 and 4 are not sweeping statements – they’re scientific findings!

  2. May 8, 2012 3:35 pm

    Great post and I say each family should do what feels right. I never worried about my baby when we’ve co-slept–I just felt safe with her there (but then I’m breastfeeding, so who know?)

  3. May 19, 2012 4:35 pm

    Hi there, Helen here, I run the parent-infant sleep lab at Durham University where the only research study that so far has ever been done comparing bedharing behaviour of breast and formula fed infants took place. We videoed mothers and babies sleeping together — all were regular bed-sharers, half were breastfeeding and half formula feeding. Bedsharing behaviours were strikingly different between (and this is important) mothers who breastfed and mothers who had never breastfed. Current and ex-breastfeeders positioned their babies and themselves in different ways from, and were oriented towards their babies for much more of the night than, mothers who had never breastfed. The physical relationship between mum and baby in the bed was different. Never-breastfeeders had a face-to-face relationship, positioning their babies at face height in the bed. Breastfeeders, whether currently breastfeeding or not, had a baby-to-breast relationship, positioning their baby at breast height, curling up around them for sleep, and creating a space with their bodies for the baby to sleep in. Never-breastfeeders slept side by side, and spent much more time facing away from one another, sometimes even turning their backs. You can read more about this research here:

    This was only one small study and needs to be replicated, but it is all we currently have, and sadly no funders have been interested in funding further research…

    • May 21, 2012 10:03 am

      Hi Helen,

      Thank you so much for your reply, I’m hugely interested in your research – you are doing such important work!


  4. Csilla permalink
    August 16, 2012 6:29 pm

    I’m not trying to be contentious, I promise, but here’s my take on the issue. I had two babies bedshare with me. My first was formula fed – through necessity. I can argue until I’m blue in the face and some people still won’t believe me, but I truly never produced a drop of milk (or colostrum, for that matter) for him. Despite seeing every lactation consultant in driving distance, attempting pumping round the clock, doing skin to skin, taking supplements… nothing. No dice. (I was also pregnant again within a month of his birth… something was off there.)

    Anyway, despite all this, I was despondent over not being able to produce milk for him, and I wanted as close to a nursing relationship as I could without actually breastfeeding. I was the only one to feed him, and while we didn’t do SNS, I fed him only in nursing positions with the bottle nipple next to my own, babywore, did all that. I even nursed on demand – yes, I know the official guidelines say you need a new bottle made up every few minutes or whatever, but we just kept the same bottle basically under the crook of my arm throughout the day/night (well, obviously I replaced the milk when I needed to, it’s not like it spoiled) and “nursed” on demand.

    I had exactly the same bedsharing experiences with him as I did with my daughter, who was born 11 months later and never had a drop of formula in her life. (Breasts made milk just fine that time, thankyou!!) I had the same wakeful sleep with both of them where I was half-awake at all times… woke with both of them instinctually when there was any “danger” to them. For example with my son (the FF one) I was dead asleep when I woke to find myself putting my arm up to guard him – my husband was just about to roll over onto him. With my daughter, I was also dead asleep and woke to find myself catching her in the split second before she sleep-rolled off the bed. (We pushed the bed against the wall after that.) So I was hyperaware of both – and ironically, my FF baby was the more wakeful sleeper – my BF baby was conked out and a much deeper sleeper.

    I would argue that if a mother is FF her baby but does not have the same nursing relationship with him… if the bottle is about nutrition instead of nutrition + nurturing – then yes, there might not be that same… I don’t want to same “bond” because certainly the love can still be there, and affection, and attachment. But perhaps subliminal instinctual awareness. But I think that’s true of all babies if the mother does not start out that way. For example, let’s say for the first couple of months the baby has a typical start – being laid down in a crib, everyone swapping him for a turn at the bottle, being swaddled and put down with the tick tock bear in a room alone… and then later on the mother reads something about co-sleeping and decides to then sleep with him, once those newborn-maternal instincts are dulled… I think that might be more difficult.

    However… I maintain that if, Lord forbid, I again had to use a bottle to feed the child I’m expecting now, I would by matter of course bedshare once again. It seems odd to me to suggest otherwise. I do get what you’re saying, but I think it’s almost a gut reaction in a lot of us to make this great chasm between “formula feeders” (no matter how sympathetic we are to them) vs “breastfeeders”, and never the twain shall meet. I think there are some mothers out there who have a real nursing relationship with a bottle fed child. Not identical, but close.

    I think where the difference pops in is that if you’re bottle feeding, whether or not you wanted initially to BF, sooner or later most women WILL take on the “convenience” factor – whether it’s to get out of the house for a few hours without baby… or whether they are just really tired that night and hey, the husband is right there and can just get up with Baby for the 10 PM / midnight / 5 AM feeding, because it’s only fair… or to let Grandma join in the joy of feeding Baby… etc. And while I’m not going to villanize anyone who does those things, they have these “conveniences” that breastfeeding moms don’t. (Then again I think BF is more convenient because there’s no bottles to lug around, nothing to buy or clean, etc. but whatever.) But all in all, they are really not the same set of circumstances as the mama who has to nurse their hungry baby even if they’re really not feeling up to it, or they have to get xyz done and it’s just really inconvenient to sit down right now to nurse… because hey, she’s the only one with the boobs, and you can’t let the kid go hungry. And over time, I think, that sort of attachment is what makes or breaks the nursing relationship. For those women who actually do take on the responsibility of feeding the child every time, “nursing” for comfort, not using pacifiers, never “propping” the baby in an unnatural position, etc… I think the differences are less than typical, and – I hesitate to say this because it sounds judgey =/ – the maternal instincts might be just as present as in a nursing relationship. No, you don’t have the same hormones present as when milk is let down, but… that’s really about it. (And I did get oxy rushes when feeding my formula baby too, fwiw! Not identical — but very similar to nursing!

    OK, done with my ramble!! I just feel passionately about this topic and hope that I presented my position moderately well. Take it for what it’s worth. :)

  5. October 5, 2012 4:08 am

    i ebf my 7 week old son up until 2 weeks ago when i had to get on medication that i couldnt bf on, i was miserable over this for the last 2 weeks, i still am not completely over it because i absolutely hate formula feeding, if a person can bf by all means i believe they need to try their hardest to do it and keep doing it but like my situation and the poster above sometimes its not possible :( my question is tho, are these statistics about babies that were NEVER breastfed and only formula fed babies, or babies that were only breastfed a certain amount of time and then formula fed, or are the studies based on both? i dont “bedshare” and we never have because our bed was too small and i just dont feel confortable with my fiance me and the baby in it together… but we cosleep tho with a cosleeping cot thingy, but i do i guess bed share after my fiance leaves for work after my son eats and we go back to sleep a couple more hours, i wake up more than my son wakes up, every little noise im jumping up… even tho i am formula feeding we wake up just as much as we did bfing…. sometimes now tho he skips a feeding during the night, but i wonder if im so in tune with him because i did ebf for a short amount of time over not at all? but the poster above said she did all the same things, although she did mimic bfing, so i wonder if alot has to do with the particular bond mom and baby share? from things like baby wearing, feeding on demand, bedsharing…. and of course not having any of the other factors mentioned of course, like smoking, drug use, lots of pillows, etc… just some curiosities i have if it makes any since what im trying to say lol.. anyways i thought your post was great, i also thought the lady that commented made some very good points also :) i enjoy when i can find blogs that have people on them that are polite and respectful unlike some of these mommy blogs/site that are basically battle zones for the mommy wars lol.

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