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More Rationale on Maternal Infant Co-sleeping

April 2019

One of my favorite researchers, Dr. James McKenna, has done extensive work on the co-sleeping maternal/infant dyad.  Remember that co-sleeping is being in the same room which is recommended by several medical sources around the world for the first year following birth.  Why?  Let's look at Dr. McKenna's work.

baby boy sleeping

When discussing maternal and infant sleep proximity, McKenna states, "Definitions are important here. The term cosleeping refers to any situation in which a committed adult caregiver, usually the mother, sleeps within close enough proximity to her infant so that each, the mother and infant, can respond to each other's sensory signals and cues. Room sharing is a form of cosleeping, always considered safe and always considered protective. But it is not the room itself that is protective. It is what goes on between the mother (or father) and the infant that is".1

"During early infancy, the neonate moves away from strict autonomic control of breathing to a system in which more voluntary, cortically based neurological structures share breathing control with lower brainstem structures (Krasnegor et al., 1987; also see McKenna, 1986 for review). Extensive voluntary control of breathing and the underlying integration of the ascending and descending nerve tracts that permit it develop within the first four months of the infant's life, enabling human infants to switch effortlessly between autonomic and volitional breathing at will. This developmental skill is maturing at the same time that infants are most vulnerable to SIDS, between the ages of 2-4 months, and SIDS remains one of the most age-circumscribed phenomena known. Learning to ''speech breath'' involves the infant learning how to control air flow rates, subglottal air pressure and release (during both sleep and awake periods), and the volume of breadth that underlies vocalizations which at first involve crying, but then transform into purposeful utterances which lead eventually to speech itself (see McKenna and Mosko, 1989). Within the normal range of developmental trajectories, however, infants are not equally capable of compensating for privation and/or environmental assaults, and about 7% of infants are born with neurological deficits (Kagan, 1984). Hence, McKenna and Mosko (1990) hypothesized that breathing control structural abnormalities or maturational asymmetries manifesting themselves during sleep could conspire with environmental stresses such as maternal sensory deprivation to increase vulnerability to SIDS".2

In several of his many research studies, McKenna found breathing and sleep sequence synchrony between mother and infant when co-sleeping that was not present when the dyad was not in close proximity. In other words (mine), mothers teach their infants to sleep, wake and breathe safely... something found in all primates and cache mammals. "The low-calorie composition of human breast milk (exquisitely adjusted for the human infants' undeveloped gut) requires frequent nighttime feeds...". 3

To read more of Dr. McKenna's fascinating work, go to his website at the University of Notre Dame's Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at https://cosleeping.nd.edu/articles-and-presentations/articles-and-essays/


Kathy Parkes, MSN-Ed, RN, IBCLC, FILCA CHC

Professional Development Educator



1 and 3. https://neuroanthropology.net/2008/12/21/cosleeping-and-biological-imperatives-why-human-babies-do-not-and-should-not-sleep-alone/

2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ajpa.20736


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