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