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Well Rested Mama on Co-Sleeping

Amy Scott


We bought a new bed last week. It's a king size bed, and its hugeness fills our small bedroom, looking almost ridiculous. But we need it, because our family sleeps together most nights, and that takes space. So this new monstrosity now resides in the "family bedroom," as it is called around here, to distinguish it from the "kids" bedroom. My oldest child is in a period of transition from sleeping with us to sleeping separately, so this distinction has become necessary. (Previously, we simply had a bedroom and a playroom, but now there is sleeping in both rooms, and we have adjusted our terminology.) Our younger child still needs to nurse at night, but much less. Soon we'll put them together in a bed in the kids' bedroom, so that they will still have a warm body close by each night. This whole process has me thinking about the idea of children sleeping alone, and the more I think about it the simpler it gets.

Baby Sleeping Alone

For most modern parents, I guess it seems wildly bizarre to hear that a child might never need to learn to sleep alone. This notion that sleeping alone is a universally practiced and necessarily healthy is an unfortunate cultural mistake. Somewhere along the way, parenting experts began making money on our fatigue by marketing methods, techniques and training programs for getting babies to sleep through the night. Most are simply some variation of the cry-it-out routine, with a twist of sleep expert lingo, threats of future neuroses and disorders, and scientific explanations of sleep cycles. Typically doctors recommend that babies never be allowed to associate sleep with the comfort of a human being. In this way, the experts claim they can sleep through the night without requiring your presence. This is not, of course, what the babies actually do. In truth, babies continue to wake back up, but have learned from experience that crying will not bring comfort, and they eventually fall back to sleep on their own.

Does Co-Sleeping Spoil A Baby?

I thought that pretty much every child care expert and doctor in the modern world basically agreed about one thing: Babies cannot be spoiled, and responding to babies when they cry is psychologically healthy, in that it offers a sense of self-efficacy. By responding promptly to a baby, we teach the baby that she can make herself heard, is safe in the world, and can make her needs known. If this is true, the converse must be as well. When we leave a baby crying in an effort to "sleep train," we teach the baby that she is powerless, is not heard, is not safe, and cannot make her needs known. Sleep training is psychologically damaging.

Well Rested Parents

What choice does a parent have, though, when Baby wakes up needing comfort and nursing as often as every hour through the night? This is not an uncommon or abnormal frequency for some babies, in some phases of development, and the resulting sleep deprivation for parents getting up each time is devastating. Parental sleep deprivation is not a joke, and the results can be horrible. Many parents are truly desperate for sleep. Often they must get up and work a full day outside the home, and literally cannot afford to be sleep-deprived. If training a baby to sleep without needing us is harmful, what does a mindful parent do?

I found my solution a year into motherhood, when my son was still waking up each night at least once. I discovered that having him in bed with me virtually eliminated my daily exhaustion. I still awoke when he did, but fell promptly back to sleep, having done nothing more than roll over. When our second child was born, he slept beside me from the first day of his life, and the results were astounding. I had, honestly, not a trace of that same mind-numbing, brain-fogging exhaustion I had experienced the first year of my motherhood. Whether the baby nursed once or ten times in a night, I slept on.

Reasons for Opposition

The reasons for opposition to this arrangement come in all varieties — behavioral, psychological and practical. "If we allow the baby into our bed, he will never leave." "Our child will be psychologically damaged and confused by sleeping with us because a couple's bed is meant to be a private and intimate place for only them." "When our baby is with us, we are too crowded."

The fact is that nearly all toddlers and preschoolers at some point show an interest in a bed of their own. Weaning a child from a family bed is no more complicated than teaching her to use the toilet, or weaning her from the breast. Yet we do not bottle feed and potty train at birth to avoid the hassle! Refraining from a loving, useful parenting technique because it will eventually have to end makes no sense.

"We'll Have No Privacy!"

The idea of a married couple having an inherent right to privacy in bed is historically a fairly recent idea, and culturally quite rare. Throughout the world, the vast majority of humanity sleeps together as a family. This does not mean, of course, that co-sleeping is the Only Right Way. It does mean, however, that it might be wise to re-examine the notion that sleeping alone is normal or desirable. Indeed, we have clues that it may be dangerous. Babies sleeping near their mother are less likely to die of SIDS, for example.

Couples should obviously have privacy, and will necessarily need time and space for intimacy, but there is nothing sacred about a bed — and no reason for children to be excluded from the warmth of their family during the night. For many children, the times before and after sleep are especially vulnerable. Doesn't it make sense to be with them more during these times instead of less?

Shortage of space will certainly preclude a happy family bed. My suggestion: sell the crib and get a kind-size bed. Shove it up against a wall, or buy a railing. Push a queen and a twin bed together if you want more space still. Many families have a few futons on the floor and really spread out! It is wonderful!

Since beginning this article, a week has passed. Our family bed has been fully broken in: jumped on gleefully, peed on by accident, snuggled in, wrestled on, thrown up on, and otherwise generally lived on. We think it's probably a very happy bed.

Snuggle up, and sweet dreams.

Amy Scott lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children. She is a sociologist, breastfeeding counselor, independent distributor for DK Family Learning, and owner of Wears The Baby, Distributing cool and useful goodies for nurtured children and mindful family life.

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Aimee Feb 9, 2009 06:56:25 PM ET

While our newborn shares our bed, I disagree that letting your baby cry tells them they are alone in the world. Learning to self-soothe is extremely important- why should my child learn that comfort can only come from others and not themselves?

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