Perspectives in Parenting: Our Family has a Family Bed

Motherhood comes with a host of choices to make about what is best for you, your family, and your child. We at Alamo City Moms Blog have a variety of moms who want to embrace these choices instead of feeling guilty or judged for them! We are continuing our “Perspectives in Parenting” series with a look at the heated topic of sleeping. Two of our contributors will share their experiences of choosing whether or not to co-sleep. Click here for the another mom’s perspective about why she chooses not to co-sleep.

This is an unpopular, even risky thing to admit. I’m gonna say it anyway: We slept with our children.

We slept with our babies in our beds, with tiny toes in our sides and small hands reaching for our eyes. We slept with babies, who grew into toddlers, who became real-sized children, who are now almost adults (except for The Batman). We embraced the family bed in the truest sense.

We believe newborns and children want and need to be close to their parents—both day and night. If not in the same bed, at least the same room.

For us, the family bed worked.

We slept together at home, camping in tents, in queen-sized hotel beds, and on pull-out couches in relatives’ homes. It was as natural as wearing our babies in a sling or backpack, as simple as nursing a toddler or opening the door for a waiting dog. It’s about meeting needs. It’s how we do family.

We never drank or used drugs and slept with our children.

It wasn’t unsafe nor unnatural. It didn’t teach bad habits or sacrifice hours of rest. We have no sleep disorders—except me, now at age 50, who suffers from the midlife, wake-up-at-God-awful-3:30 A.M. syndrome. (Where’s the sleep trainer for that?!) We followed basic recommendations for safe co-sleeping from Dr. James McKenna, a leading researcher of infant sleep.

Our babies slept on their sides or backs while safely in the crook of our arms. They snoozed on our chests or on their backs next to us, safely away from fluffy comforters and pillows. Warmed by sleepers or swaddled blankets, nothing tangled or wrapped around their necks. Nothing put them in danger.

You can’t look at my children and guess how long they slept in our bed any more than you’d guess when they began walking, reading, or menstruating. The first two are in college and sleep well without us, and at 12 years old, The Batman is a-okay, too.

It never fails. In a group of mamas, voices turn to whispers when someone asks, “How’s she sleeping?”

When I was asked, I’d respond, “Great. With her eyes closed.” (Snark is a dominant familial trait.)

Back to those huddled mamas. Inevitably, the next question was, “Where is she sleeping?”

The whispered response: “With us.”

WHAT? It wasn’t actually spoken, just implied with eyes, forehead creases, and whiplash-like head turns.

“With us. She sleeps with us.”

Those who would never dare sleep with their children cast sideways glances. The slightly parted lips of those ready to join in agreement froze; words hung unspoken. That open-mouthed pause is the tell of mamas who sleep with their babies but are afraid to admit it.

We’re told it’s dangerous to sleep with our babies. We’re told it’s damaging to sleep with our children.

We can’t deny companies benefit from telling us that children need products over parents—but that’s another post.

Sleeping with our babies and children was instinctual. We didn’t spend daylight hours with babes in arms and expect them to sleep alone in a crib when the sun set. It was counterintuitive. We set up one crib, one time, for about a year in Philadelphia. It was great storage for stuffed animals, toddler toys, cloth diapers, and still-warm-from-the-dryer baby clothes. Then, we sold it and had two more babies in Texas.

We did have a small cradle and playpen—safe places to nap or hang out when needed. But our babies weren’t expected to sleep alone after living in my womb for 40+ weeks, listening to my heartbeat, feeling the vibrations of my voice, the sways of my movement, the rumble of a cough, or the blast of a sneeze.

We watched other parents grow frustrated when their babies couldn’t sleep alone. We saw families, like us, who took their children to bed with them. We had no certified “sleep trainers” in the ’90s. I’m sure they’re helpful for some families, but I wonder: how does a species not innately know how to sleep? Are we so disconnected from our natural selves and intuition that we need to pay someone to show us how to teach our babies to sleep?*

I know many adults in relationships who hate sleeping alone. When a partner works the night shift or travels, their nights become hours of tossing and turning culminating in a Netflix marathon. Did I mention, they’re adults?

Pregnant with Sis, I read Tine Thevenin’s The Family Bed and Dr. William Sears’ Nighttime Parenting. I also read back issues of Mothering Magazine, as well as writings by anthropologists. My husband and I never believed parenting stopped at night, and these works validated our beliefs. Babies are not born with well-developed circadian rhythms. They do all kinds of things to acclimate to this earth; parenting is 24/7. Tine Thevenin “…cited studies by anthropologists that in 48 out of 56 societies surveyed, babies slept with their mothers for at least the first year of life. She also quoted several authorities, including the anthropologist Ashley Montagu and Dr. Lee Salk, who praise family sleeping.” We had years of species survival experience on our side. What kept that saber-toothed tiger from hearing a baby cry out? Mama, pulling her in close at the slightest whimper and shushing her with the comfort of her breast or the touch of her hand.

In nearly a quarter of a century doing this thing we call “family,” we’ve experienced many benefits of our family bed. Below are just a few:

  • It established and promoted a good breast milk supply in the early days.
  • Nighttime nursing kept pesky menstrual periods away. This needs no more explanation.
  • Our babies slept better with us. Research suggests that babies rely on us to help set their circadian rhythms. McKenna indicates the presence of our breathing, touch, and heartbeat protect against SIDS by stimulating babies’ autonomic systems to beat and breathe. This is why kangaroo care is so beneficial to premature babes.
  • We slept better. We’re lazy. I’m not a morning person. Me without sleep is not a pretty sight—think The Walking Dead on steroids. Sleeping with my children allowed us all to rest rather than me constantly getting up and running somewhere to check on them or startling at every slight sound on a monitor. I merely reached over to touch and soothe them, barely disturbing the cover or my rest.
  • Our kids slept wherever we were. Some babies like certain blankets or “lovies.” Some only sleep in their own cribs. Nothing wrong with that. But since we’ve never lived near babysitting family and we’re not homebodies, we needed good sleepers anywhere and everywhere. Staying out late with a baby? No problem. As long as Mom and Dad were along, our babies fell asleep and slept peacefully. We never rushed home at bedtime for their own crib or bed. This sleeping superpower came in handy when stranded at airports or on long car trips. The worst side effects are neck aches from wonky sleep positions.
  • Finally, this is my favorite perk: Have you read Audrey Wood’s book, The Napping House? That’s us. As a family, we’re quite comfortable with each other, sitting close to each other, leaning on a shoulder, napping on a lap. Co-sleeping helped our bond as family. Sure, there were nights I had an elbow in my ear or woke up to a foot in my side. I still slept better with them near. Such small fleeting discomforts and minute trivialities became normal. There’s nothing better than waking up to a happy grin, a baby’s fingers in your mouth, or a well-rested child’s snuggle.

In our years of familybedding (which I’ve now made verb), we encountered many common misunderstandings about the family bed. I’d like to address some of those here:

The family bed sucks the sex life from the relationship. Hello, having children interferes with sex. It’s like a super power even the tiniest newborns possess. They’ve got little “Mama’s gettin’ busy” alarms. Dorms, roommates, parents: they all interfere with sex, too. You’ve been creative before. Get creative again. Use the guest bedroom, the shower, the couch, or the kitchen. Get a sitter and go on a date and go parking. Think outside the box.

You’ll never get your kids out of your bed. False. They will eventually find their way to their own beds and their own rooms. This was never a big deal. We never turned them away from the family bed, regardless of age or size. If a certain sweaty boy needed a shower, he’d have to fix that before crawling under our covers.

I won’t out my kids here by talking about how old they were when they left the family bed. In 2015, the best mornings are when the girls come home from college. One by one, we all may end up in one king-sized bed or another: laughing, browsing YouTube videos, or most recently, watching an episode of Dexter. There’s something about the comfort of closeness with my offspring, even if it involves watching a serial killer series.

Many who have never tried a family bed believe they won’t get sleep. The opposite was true for us. The military and his career often take my husband away from home. I found comfort and simplicity sleeping with my children. I’d never trade the mornings that began slowly, nursing a baby while reading or talking with an older child or two. You know those unique early morning baby giggles? You get all of that and more in a family bed.

A recent weekend found Dad out of town and everyone else at home. I was all alone in my king-sized bed with thunder and lightning outside. Just a little bit pathetic, I went from room to room asking, “Anyone wanna sleep with me in my big ol’ bed? Anyone? We can watch whatever you want to watch on Netflix: Supernatural? Gilmore Girls? Full House?” (Yes, I was willing to watch Uncle Jesse. Don’t judge.) Sadly, I slept alone while the three of them piled together watching movies in another room. Bittersweet.

We were right about the time of babes and children in our bed passing quickly. The memories are sweet and comforting. Maybe one day there will be little ones wanting to spend the night with Grandma in her big ol’ bed. They won’t be disappointed, as this bed will always be a family bed.

As I wrote this post, I celebrated my 50th birthday. I received a group of "I Love You Because..." cards from one of my children. With permission, I share one of them here. (Yes, it also says "I Love You Because....You are weird." Kids!)

As I wrote this post, I celebrated my 50th birthday. I received a group of “I Love You Because…” cards from one of my children. With permission, I share one of them here. (Yes, it also says “I Love You Because….You are weird.” Kids!)

Families have to find what works best for them. This piece is not a guide for sleeping with your baby or a rant against sleep trainers and those who use them. There’s plenty out there on that. It’s meant to share our experience and to support other families who make similar choices following their instincts.

There are families who experience real sleep challenges and disorders. There are adults and children who sleep better in their own space. We are not them. If you wonder what a family bed looks like, here are some family beds by Russian photographer Jana Romanova. There are many resources out there, some listed within this post. Here are a few others:

Pediatric Politics: How Dire Warnings Against Infant Bed Sharing ‘Backfired’

Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory

Why We Let Our Children Sleep in Our Bed with Mayim Bialik, Ph.D.

My Conversation with Co-Sleeping Expert James McKenna, By Arianna Huffington

*No disrespect to sleep trainers. We just didn’t need their services.

12 Responses to Perspectives in Parenting: Our Family has a Family Bed

  1. Celeste May 23, 2015 at 5:49 am #

    Cosleeping is as natural as birth itself. If people choose not to do it, fair enough. But we never turn our son away, and he has a little bed next to my bed because I do have a sleep disorder and this mama can’t have four year old toes in her ears all night 😉 so he comes in and sleeps on his little bed and we hold hands. No plans to change this until he is ready! Thanks for sharing! You’ll get negative feedback, don’t read it. Read the positive and know that some little child somewhere might benefit. Cheers!!!

    • Denise
      Denise May 24, 2015 at 12:12 am #

      I’m happy you found something that worked for you and your son, in spite of your sleep disorder. I spent more than a couple of nights holding hands with a little one on a pallet while a newborn sibling was in the bed 😉 Thank you for reading and taking the time to share your stories. Your encouraging words mean more than you’ll know <3

  2. Michelle May 21, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    2 kids, I co-slept with one and only napped with another.
    With my son, he was in the hospital for 8 months and had to come home with a massive amount of equipment. I held him every day during his naps.
    And I slept in his room many nights.

    When my daughter came along, she fought being physically away from me, even for a few minutes. I had a csection, and on the first night, the nurse took her to the nursery so I could adjust to the pain meds. She brought her back after 25-30 minutes and said “she hasn’t stopped crying” and once she was with me, my daughter stopped crying.
    From then on, I slept with her at my side for the next 13 months. And we slept okay, though she was a frequent nurser. Once she was weaned, she was more willing to be in her own bed and now prefers her space.

    • Denise
      Denise May 24, 2015 at 12:11 am #

      That must’ve been so hard having your son in the hospital for 8 months. I’m so glad you got him home! My babies were like your daughter – longed to always be close. I’m happy you had that shared time with your babies. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! all my best to you and your little ones!

  3. Micheline May 17, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

    I could have written this! But not nearly as well! Ha! Thank you!! My 5 year old son and 3 year old sleep with us. My son started out in a bassinet but had acid reflux and I discovered he slept better propped up ony chest at night. Then I realized *I* was sleeping better because he was right with me and at the slightest peep I could care for him without getting up. By the time my daughter arrived it didn’t feel natural to me to have her in a crib part from me and she started cosleeping right in the hospital and went home with me to my bed. Nursing was easier for sure. My husband travels for work and I sleep better with them in my bed and best of all no fights at bedtime. Everyone grabs their pillow and heads to bed. My kids go to bed and wake up together and share laughs and love and snuggle time with each other and mom and dad. I slept many years without them. I know a day will come when they will want to be in their own beds and never look back. I relish everyday. (And yeah people—since when does sex only have to happen in our bed in our bedroom–we have a whole house!!)

    • Denise
      Denise May 23, 2015 at 9:06 am #

      It sounds as if you certainly could have written it Micheline – we’re on similar journeys just one behind the other. I think you wrote it beautifully in your comment. Thank you for sharing. It’s nice to know there’s another momma out there who experiences it in the same way. I loved the going to bed and waking up with laughter and snuggling. The day will come, until then, love on your little ones! (definitely, nice to have the whole house 😉 )

  4. hkjcook May 17, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

    Thank you for this. We didn’t start out with a Family Bed. But my son was put on asthma medication, which gave him night terrors. This was at the age of 3. We took him off the medication, but he is still in our bed. He does have periodic asthma attacks and I actually sleep better knowing that I am there with medication in case anything happens. As you know, everyone has an opinion. He is four and he was the one that deemed it the “Family Bed.” I’m not going to lie, I will relish the day he is ready for his own room. But until he is ready, I’m going to be there arms open for a snuggle.

    • Denise
      Denise May 23, 2015 at 9:07 am #

      Thanks, hkjcook. I’d definitely sleep a lot better if I had a little one with asthma sleeping near. All my best momma love to you and your little one. i hope he outgrows the asthma – that can be scary. <3

  5. Ashleigh May 16, 2015 at 6:33 pm #

    Thank you for this piece. It is exactly what I needed to read today. I am 8 days postpartum with my second baby and have found myself gravitating towards co-sleeping. My daughter roomed with us for the first 6 months, but was always most comfortable in her bassinet or crib. Even now at 3 she likes her own space, even if she shares it with a million pillows and stuffed friends. Our newest guy however, I strongly sense will be a different story. I know he’s only a week old and his habits are not even habits yet, but I feel I need an arsenal of research if he winds up in our bed more often than not. As a society we have been made so fearful of sharing a bed with our babies. I have found myself waking in the middle of the night terrified I am going to become a statistic. I truly appreciate you writing about your experience as well as providing sources for more information. you have given me hope.

    • Denise
      Denise May 17, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

      It’s all about finding our way, isn’t it? Each child is so different. I’m betting your mothering instincts and intuition is right on. Congratulations on your newest family member. Thank you for reading and commenting <3 all the best to you and your family.

  6. Jemima May 12, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    Powerful piece! I love your writing and appreciate your perspective. Joni Edelman has some beautiful photos of her family bed on Instagram.

    • Denise
      Denise May 12, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

      Thank you, Jemima. Your time and thoughts are so appreciated. Thank you for the recommendation of Joni Edelman. I’m going to check her out! (The brief bio I just read, I think I’ll love her!)