Co-Sleeping – Yes, We Sleep With our children

“WHY WOULD ANYONE leave their child to cry for 45 minutes?” my nine-year-old asked in astonishment. We’d just listened to a radio item about teaching one’s young child to sleep. An “expert” running a course at a family counseling center advocated closing the door and leaving the child to cry herself to sleep. After a few nights of this, she maintained, your child will learn to fall asleep on her own.

My son was sleeping alone

I’d heard this approach to the question of children and sleep before. Nonetheless, I was as stupefied and distressed now as the first time. When my son was an infant, I even came across the suggestion that if you found your child’s cries too upsetting, you should muffle the sounds with a rolled-up towel at the foot of the door. Or the advice to tuck little one into bed with a teddy bear so that if she awoke, rather than disturb Mommy and Daddy, she’d soothe herself back to sleep by clutching a teddy.

This violated every maternal fiber in my body. Surely I was a mother 24 hours a day. Surely my son had a right to be nurtured during nighttime hours as well as daylight. If he learns to fall asleep after a few nights of ignored howls, I reasoned, surely that’s because he’s received a sad message: my parent is a parent only during waking hours and will not provide me with the love and security I need at night. Never was leaving Nicky to cry himself to sleep an option.

Ultimately, not only would we shun the door muffler and stuffed animal, my husband, son and I would opt for the family bed — that is, all of us snuggling into the same bed, every night, all night through. But first I had some learning to do.

During my pregnancy, like many expectant parents, I lovingly prepared a nursery. That room would scarcely be used. Nicky was delivered by Caesarean section, and for a few weeks climbing stairs to our respective bedrooms was out of the question. We temporarily turned a downstairs room into a bedroom for the three of us.

How right that felt, all of us together in the same bed! When we moved upstairs again, I went through the motions of putting Nicky in his crib. Neither of us liked it. Nicky would fall asleep nursing in my arms, but no sooner had I transferred him to his crib than he woke up crying. If he did fall asleep, it wasn’t for long. Guiltily, at some point during the night I would bring him into bed with us, using fatigue and the approach of dawn as justification. Not yet ready to fully embrace the family bed concept, I put him on top of the covers, down around our knees, rather than under the covers between us. Often he cried until I laid him on my chest, where he happily fell asleep.

I tentatively broached the matter with other parents and received varying skeptical looks and comments:

  • “Children need to learn to sleep by themselves.”
  • “I’d never sleep with my child — I like cuddling up to my husband at night.”
  • “Don’t start — the battles when we moved our three-year-old into her own room!”

Fortunately, there were other voices in the wilderness, parents who believed that sleeping with one’s children is not overprotective, does not lead to sexual abuse, and does not rob the parents of a sexual relationship (most slip away to another room for awhile). In fact, the kids (and parents) thrived on this closeness. In Minnesota writer Tine Thevenin’s book The Family Bed, I read that in many cultures around the world, tribal and industrialized, children and parents routinely share the same bed. In Western culture, separate rooms are a recent phenomenon, a response to concerns about spreading germs, changing moral attitudes, and the impact of industrialization, which saw separate rooms as an expression of prosperity and thus status. Prior to this, people commonly slept in the same room in which they ate and lived. Parents, children, and even servants and visitors could share the same bed.

I’ll never forget the night I bucked the trend and followed my intuition. Very tired, I started the night with Nicky in bed with me, intending to move him to his crib once he’d nursed to sleep. As I looked at him, sweet-faced and slumbering peacefully, I knew that in my heart of hearts I wanted him there beside me. I also knew that he needed me there, a heartbeat away, not in a room that to an infant must feel separated by oceans. Not until he was ready would my son again sleep by himself. That moment was palpable to us both. With an audible sigh, Nicky nestled closer. We slept soundly yet intensely and joyfully aware of one another.

Since that day, we sleep together

This was my first lesson in the importance of listening to my child and of trusting that powerful intuition that all mothers have, rather than imposing without question a societal view that may not be healthy. Other mothers I knew wearily complained of interrupted nights responding to the cries of young ones in other parts of the house, while I rolled over in bed, pulled my son close, nursed and readily fell back to sleep.

As Nicky grew, we replaced our queen-sized bed with an enormous foam mattress. Around age 8, he wanted a room of his own. Now 10, he still sleeps with us on occasion and is never turned away. Bedtime stories while cuddling together remain an important ritual. Inevitably his father or I fall asleep with him, moving to our own bed a while later. Nicky didn’t need to be taught to sleep by himself. He grew into it, just as he learned to crawl, walk and talk.

This post based on my personal experience - not professional advice.

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