There is a Bed, a Family Bed, Where Everyone is Sleeping
Recently, I went on yet another business trip. Fortunately, this was the first business trip I’ve made in some time, almost a year if memory serves correctly. I have traveled several times a year over the past 10 years or so—sometimes more, sometimes less. On this latest trip I actually tried to write down a list of all of the business trips I have taken as a way to pass the time during a long layover. I stopped at 25, unable and unwilling to think about it anymore.
Like everything, traveling on business has its good points and bad points. On the positive side, I get the TV all to myself and it is pretty quiet. On the negative side, I get the bed all to myself and it is pretty quiet.
Ahh, the bed. I always sleep really poorly when I am away. Part of it could be that I have a TV right in front of me to waste away the time. Part of it could be that most hotel beds are pretty uncomfortable when you get right down to it. But the real reason? Because I am sleeping alone, without my family near me, and I am definitely not used to that.
When we found out that we were having our first son, like most parents we immediately hit the bookstore to begin trying to soak up sage parenting advice to guide us on this uncertain journey. We weren’t necessarily looking for information that was popular, or traditional, or “scientifically proven,” whatever that means. We were looking for practical information that made sense to us and rang true in our hearts. In the end, we came up with an overall philosophy that many people may think is pretty out there in terms of how far away it is from traditional parenting. We decided against formula feeding, against circumcision, against vaccinations (eventually), and against disposable diapers. Or, more appropriately, we decided to breastfeed, to keep our sons whole physically, to inform ourselves about the risks and rewards of vaccinations and adjust accordingly, and to wash our own cloth diapers. After doing our research and searching our hearts, these decisions all made sense to us. But there was one other choice we made that has been as rewarding as it has been controversial—the decision to share a family bed, or co-sleep, with our children.
If you think about it, sleeping in separate beds and rooms is a relatively new phenomenon, and to this day is not accepted or even possible in many, many cultures. While I haven’t researched this topic thoroughly, I would think that the idea of separate sleeping came along with the affluence that led to larger homes, and conventional work and school paradigms that “necessitate” regular sleep patterns for various members of the family. Regardless of its origins, separate sleeping has become the norm in our society. And as with any norm, it has its active supporters. In fact, any educated parent could probably come up with a lengthy list of why parents should sleep separately from their children. Some of these arguments are based on fear, some on research, and some on preference. But they all boil down to concerns about safety, couple intimacy, and the well-being of the child.
When we were originally thinking about co-sleeping, it wasn’t really with an eye on the benefits of sharing a family bed—it was more because we just could not wrap our heads or hearts around the idea of leaving a baby in a crib. To us, something that small, that helpless, that perfect, that sweet, and that dependent simply required us to be as close as possible for as much time as possible. I mean, all other rationales aside, how do you spend your entire day holding a baby close to you, nurturing, cuddling, allowing her to explore your face with her fingers as she learns how to work her eyes, letting him suck on your nose and fall asleep on your chest, and then just put the baby in another room alone when night comes? That dichotomy seemed too much to bear. It just felt wrong, regardless of whatever logic someone tried to douse it with.
Still, there are certainly more than enough people out there who will tell you that co-sleeping is a bad idea. In fact, both The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) warn that infants (under 1 year) should not cosleep with their parents. Their reasons vary somewhat, but in general they boil down to concerns about the risk of suffocation and SIDS. To be sure, suffocation and SIDS are tragic and the risks should be taken seriously. There are many things that could go wrong: A baby could fall off of the bed or get caught in the headboard, he could suffocate in loose bedding, or one of the parents could roll over onto the baby. These things happen, and not just to babies with inattentive parents. Of course, the first two happen with babies in cribs as well. And the third is often caused by parents who have been drinking or taking drugs.
But there are risks and rewards in virtually every aspect of life, especially in parenting. We understood these risks and did everything in our power to mitigate them. We chose a large bed with plenty of room for a baby in between us. I used a body pillow as a small “do not cross” barrier so I would stay in my lane, as it were. Our bed doesn’t have a head- or footboard, and we kept our bed low so that if there was a fall, it would be very short. And neither of us smoke or drink. In other words, we did everything we could to minimize the risks so that we, and our babies, could maximize the rewards.
Safety is one concern many parents have when thinking about co-sleeping, but just as critical is the concern about loss of intimacy. There seems to be a belief that couples who sleep with their babies lose out completely on any opportunity to be intimate. I never quite understood that. First of all, when it comes to sexual intimacy it is always beneficial—not to mention pretty interesting— to think “outside the bed.” With baby on the bed safely between two pillows with plenty of room to turn over, the floor or chair or couch—or whatever else you can imagine—make excellent bed substitutes. Also, there are plenty of other, non-nighttime opportunities to share intimacy with your partner; the trick is in rethinking old sexual habits and turning them into new ideas in terms of place and time.
But not all intimacy is sexual. Don’t believe me? Wake up at 2 a.m. to the sound of a hungry or restless baby, and place your hand gently on your baby’s back while she breastfeeds, looking all the while into the eyes of your partner just feet away from you. I challenge you—no, I dare you—to find a more intimate moment than that. If you try it and still don’t get it, take a deep breath and try harder. It’s there; you just have to let it come to you.
But all concerns aside—be they related to safety or intimacy—our decision was based on what we thought was best for the entire family, including our little dudes. Again, our babies need us close—they need us to comfort them, to help them, to teach them, to show them through our actions, even from a young age, that the world can be a place that soothes and enables and provides. I cannot wrap my head around how to do that by putting my baby, who needs me desperately, in a crib, or in another room. Intellectually, I get the idea behind this: “teaching” a baby independence, getting mommy some rest, etc. But…I don’t know, somehow it seems so unnatural to me.
As a new parent, you have to accept the fact that a baby changes your life, not that you change the baby’s life. You cannot simply go on living exactly the same way that you did pre-parenting, with the same deadlines, milestones, expectations and needs. Your baby is not an addendum, an appendix, an appendage or a pet. She is a human being, and a needful and helpless one at that, who needs you to adjust a bit to help her get off to a solid start in the world.
Many parents want, and perhaps think that they need, their babies to sleep through the night and gain independence as soon as possible. Sometimes that is a legitimate need: All families are different and no one way works for everyone. But leaving babies alone at night to cry it out—to figure it out for themselves— ignores the fact that babies do not cry because they are lonely, they cry because they are hungry, thirsty, afraid, uncertain, in pain or uncomfortable. They have no other means to communicate these needs, and no means to meet these needs without you. When left alone to try to figure it out, they really only learn two things: how to deal with a need that is unmet, and that their expression of needs will often go ignored.
So, if you accept the fact that infants have needs, isn’t it rational to also think that their need for comfort outweighs their need for independence? Isn’t it rational to think that their need for the intimacy and security of closeness outweighs their need for alone time? And isn’t it rational to think that their need for you outweighs their need for nearly anything else? You alone can choose whether or not to meet your baby’s needs and demonstrate to them the power behind meeting needs in general.
Let’s say that you understand the benefits of cosleeping with an infant. After all, there is a deep logic behind it, right? But what about sharing a family bed with your children as they get older?
I think that the same logic applies well here, actually. We still co-sleep; in fact, we’ve been doing it from the get-go, more than 12 years now. We choose to continue it because it works for us—for all of us—in many ways. It allows us all a sense of connection at the end of days both good and not-so-good. It allows us some time to talk before we drift off to sleep. It allows us the sense of security that comes with knowing that we sleep surrounded by love. And it allows us one space in the world which we know is just ours, together, as a family; sometimes the only time we are all together is when we are snuggled in asleep.
But we don’t force it. If the kids wanted their own rooms and beds, they would get them; in fact, I regularly ask them if they would like their own rooms. When they come to bed and rustle around for a bit, I can usually get right back to sleep after a quick hug or a few peaceful words. When I need more sleep, I move to a different room with no frustration or malice. When I choose intimacy with my partner, we get creative. When I wake up, usually far earlier than anyone else, I do so as quietly and respectfully as possible—and everyone else does the same. It works, and works well. In fact, it is essential to our deep connection as a family.
I know that someday, sooner rather than later, this will change. I know that they will choose their own rooms, their own beds, and eventually some different sleeping partners. Ginger and I will share a bed just by ourselves, and our lives will change yet again. But I know that, when those days do come, our boys will be better for the comfort, security, and respect that we have shown them by taking care of their needs as infants and then supporting their wishes as children.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #46.
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