Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Confession of a Closet Co-Sleeper

Our first of three amazing, brilliant children was born in February of 2005. We planned on breastfeeding and were completely anti-CIO and all for using exclusively gentle parenting and discipline methods. We would raise our child (and any to follow) in a healthy, stable, loving environment, with awareness, compassion, learning, respect and clear, safe boundaries. Oh, and we had a crib.

In my third trimester, I often heard the question: “Is baby’s room ready?” Well, yes, it was, but I immediately added that we’d have our son rooming in with us in a bassinet connected to our bed “for at least the first few weeks”. I was assured from friends, family members, magazines and doctors that by about six weeks, babies did best on a set schedule for feeding and waking and sleeping as well as most daytime activities like bathing, storytime, cuddles, and so on.

There was a gross error in my naive comprehension of that phrase: “by about six weeks, baby does best on a set schedule”. I don’t know why I was so naive, coming from a large family, but maybe my nesting frenzy was clouding my brain or something, and I was confident that what that really meant was that most babies just start to fall asleep at night and sleep for extended stretches by about six weeks. What it really meant was more akin to: “many parents prefer to feel more relaxed and less overwhelmed by forcing baby into a nocturnal pattern they have developed throughout life despite how alien and unnatural it is to baby and how poorly it fulfills baby’s physical, emotional and mental needs”.

From the second I met my devastatingly gorgeous son, I could barely look away from him. I shuddered at the idea of sending him to the nursery available at the hospital where I birthed and I marveled at how hungry he was all the time. His first pediatrician warned us, “Don’t let him use you as a pacifier. Nursing every three hours is more than sufficient or you’ll just drain your milk supply. If he’s still acting hungry after twenty or thirty minutes of nursing, give him a few ounces of water.” (Yes, this is actually a highly respected pediatrician in our city who even had a guest ‘ask the doctor’ spot on a local morning news channel.) I didn’t even have access to the internet at the time and I had no friends or connections with any breastfeeding experience or advice; my son was tongue tied which made nursing painful, and I had a medical condition which made things even more difficult, but despite all that I continued to nurse on demand, around the clock, despite criticism. Even if there was no medical or physical or nutritional reason (which I learned soon that there is), I couldn’t bear to deny him what he needed emotionally. That included all night long.

Yes, aaaaaaaaaall niiiiiiiiight loooooong. Babies are rockstars that way. My husband would offer to take him so I could sleep. Could I? No. I’d feel nothing but panic and the most undeniable, superhuman urge to run to my loving, supportive, understanding husband and rip the baby from him arms and just be with him. I didn’t exactly RIP him, but I sure couldn’t sleep if he was awake. My son wanted me to hold him all the time. I couldn’t bear to lay him down for a nap; he’d start to fuss even if all he wanted was to be held and snuggled. I held him at mealtimes and the art of eating one handed became a quick and expert skill of mine. Wearing my son worked out a lot, and I loved taking walks with him every day in his sling, but most often, he just wanted my arms, and I couldn’t refuse. I carried and snuggled him everywhere. He didn’t want to be left in his carseat, and I hated the times he HAD to be strapped in, like car rides (I cannot count the times we had to pull over so I could nurse him [I’d even nursed him WHILE my husband drove, us in the backseat, baby strapped in safely, me buckled next to him, leaning way over so we could reach each other]) or solo grocery shopping trips when the cart was just too heavy to push one handed and he wouldn’t ride in a carrier.

He wanted to eat at night, and even when he was full, he refused any resting spot but cuddled up with me. Our breathing rhythms matched; I’m certain our heartbeats did as well. His slightest move was detected by my mind and body almost before he made it. I would do ANYTHING to soothe him. At one point when he had bad reflux and colic, my husband described what I did as an “Indian Rain Dance” where I sort of did lunges through the house while rocking my upper body and “shushing” loudly in my son’s ear (he was comforted by the white noise).

Due to a rare medical condition, we had to stop nursing prematurely, which was heartbreaking for me, but I continued to comfort him whenever he needed it, to hold him as often as he preferred (which was about 23.5 hours a day) and to answer each need immediately, whether it be hunger, boredom, crankiness, emotional needs or just plain being attached to mama. A friend of mine said, “Now that you don’t have to nurse anymore, you can finally get him out of your room!” as though congratulating me. I meekly responded that, no, I didn’t think he was ready yet.

Those “first few weeks” of his rooming in turned into three months, then six. I remember all of my friends who were parents responding bugeyed that he still woke up every two to three hours and still slept in our room. I heard rave reviews about the Ferber method, “cry it out”, “controlled crying”, “sleep training”. They all consisted of the same basic idea: deny your baby’s basic needs of comfort and nourishment; ignore their cries; leave them alone in their grief, discomfort, fear, hunger and stress even to the point of physical danger (HOW is the “back to sleep” campaign supposed to work if it’s all right according to sleep training methods for a baby to cry so hard they vomit?), night after night, day after day, until they finally learn that they are truly alone and completely give up on expecting their parents to come when they are needed most. Oh, but it’s worth it because then the parents can sleep as if they’d never even had a baby. *face>palm*

I kind of laugh at myself over spending so much money on that silly bassinet. Even if I laid my son down in it, I would hover over him, feeling his chest to see if he was breathing, then at two months old, when he became addicted to holding onto my hair almost all of the time and especially when sleeping, I’d try to lie with my body on the bed, and my hand on or next to his chest and my head and neck leaned over into the bassinet so he could still hold onto a fistful of my hair– bottom line, it would have been impossible to sleep that way. The bassinet was moved into his nursery, which was quickly becoming a store room for things. When I went in to put away laundry or get him an outfit for the day, the crib began to appear more and more menacing and cold and jail like. I abhored the very thought of putting him there alone, leaving him in the room alone, and the idea of not having constant vigil while he slept of his breathing rhythm and his comfort levels was something I just couldn’t fathom. I would begin to feel panicky and overwhelmed at the notion of it.

Our son slept perfectly content with my arms around him, in our bed, the comforting scents of his parents who loved him and responded to his needs lovingly all around. At his six month checkup, the nurse asked the basic questions about whether he’d started solids, if he was rolling over, and then joked, “This is a good age because you don’t have those awful nighttime feedings and all that crying to deal with.” My husband told her that he still woke up several times a night and she immediately looked up warily from her clipboard, her eyes darting from one of us to the other to see if we were serious. When our doctor came in a little later, he said, “I see you’re having some sleep issues?”

“No, he’s just still not ready to sleep for more than three hours or so at a time,” I explained.

“By this age, you’re just going to have to learn to let him cry. It’s good for his lungs, and there is nothing wrong with him. If you don’t, you’ll be dealing with this for as long as you let him be in control.”

On the drive home, I thought a lot about it. “Letting him be in control”? I had never seen it as control. We were the parents, and it was our choice to attend to our child’s needs whether it was 2 p.m. or 2 a.m. It didn’t mean we weren’t in control, just that we took our parenting job seriously regardless of the time. Our doctor didn’t like the co-sleeping idea. He said it was dangerous and increased the chances of SIDS and keeping him there was selfish of me and that we needed to put his safety at the forefront of our concerns. I didn’t have access to accurate information and statistics on co-sleeping and bed-sharing at the time (and didn’t even hear the term “attachment parenting” for the first time until several years later), but I knew in my heart that the way we were sleeping was not only safe and emotionally beneficial for our entire family, but it was also the only way I myself would ever be able to get any sleep. The alternative, without choosing a CIO method, would be for me to stand constant vigil at our son’s crib, soothing him throughout the night, and if I ever laid down myself, I’d be back up and standing for hours every few minutes. Why go through that, when there was a loving, safe, effective, natural method of sleeping with our baby that was not only possible, but was already working for us?

We didn’t return to that pediatrician’s office again after that.

About this time, I became pregnant with our second child. With each pregnancy, I had severe hyperemesis gravidarum (a rare and sometimes deadly disease few women endure while pregnant which made me constantly ill and very weak every moment from conception until birth), and it was harder than the first pregnancy, when I could be on bed rest, because now I also had a six month old, but we made it through to the end and welcomed our daughter into our family when our son was just shy of 15 months old. By this time, he slept snuggled between me and my six and a half foot tall husband, cuddling back and forth between the two of us. Our daughter took our son’s old spot in my arms, my body curled around her, my knees below her feet, with my lips pursed against her forehead while I dozed, which prevented her nose and mouth from pressing against any part of my body or clothing (thus, no risk of her air supply every being threatened and no risk of suffocation). I don’t think anyone but a cosleeping mother can understand that exact pose and how it both comforts and protects your child. Co-sleeping does not mean sleeping on a couch or a futon; it does not mean drinking, smoking or doing drugs and then going to bed with the baby. It is a sober, healthy environment where the mother’s body and being is so aware of her child’s and in tune with her child’s breathing rhythms that there is no safer possible sleeping arrangement. I’d pulled out the bassinet again and attached it to my side of the bed. It was a real lifesaver. . . . for holding diapers, wipes, my ice water and the phone.

With our expanding family, we were in need of a larger home, and we rented a bigger house in the same town. On our second day there, we answered a knock at the door to a social worker from the Department of Human Services, coming to investigate us for, you guessed it, co-sleeping. She had to check our nursery and was satisfied that the kids had their own sleeping spaces: a crib for our daughter (actually used to hold stuffed animals, a fact which didn’t seem to bother her even though stuffed animals in a crib with a baby hugely increases the risk of suffocation) and a toddler bed for our son (actually used for playing on and under). To this day, I still don’t know exactly who it was who made the report against us, and I have tried in vain to get a decent answer from the Department of Human Services as to why any parent could be investigated for co-sleeping with their own children. It seems the only stance we were given by the social worker was the “incredibly high risk of SIDS” and that it was lazier and more selfish to not provide a child with their own sleeping spaces. Well, our children didn’t want their own sleeping spaces, and I myself think it is a lot more lazy and selfish to let your baby or child cry it out alone in their room so that you can sleep like you did before you were ever a parent. Being a no CIO family, was there a benefit of more sleep and more cuddling (which I loved) for myself by bed-sharing? Well, yes, but that wasn’t why we’d begun doing it in the first place. It was because it was what our children needed to feel safe, loved and secure and to have their needs met.

With all of the negative responses we received from family, friends, doctors, DHS and the public in general, I started to feel a need to keep our co-sleeping practice on the quiet side. I stopped answering honestly and instead changed the subject if I heard the topic come up. Sometimes I’d wish to hear someone else say that they, too, shared a bed with their child; I’d hope to read an article where it wasn’t made out to be a lazy, unsafe hazard; I’d desire praise or acceptance from a family member for my unwavering support of our children’s needs. When so much time went by without it, I stopped waiting for it and felt very alone.

My husband’s job took him overseas shortly before the birth of our third child. It was a tough adjustment but it did leave more room in our bed. Our daughter, now 16 months, slept on one side of me, our oldest son, now two and a half, slept across the bottom of the bed at my legs, and our newborn son was curled up on my other side in our trademark “newborn” position. By this point, only my closest friends and some family knew about our sleeping arrangement. We didn’t know anyone else who shared a bed with their children, and I’d still never found access to any positive resources regarding the practice. I was still decidedly against any CIO methods if the topic came up among friends or on social networking sites, but I didn’t elaborate on our sleeping situation.

When our youngest child turned two, we bought our first house and used the game room as our bedroom. It was upstairs near our daughter’s room and our sons’ room (though they still slept in our room) and had plenty of room for us to push our queen size bed next to a full size roll away bed, which gave us the options to cuddle as well as to stretch out. Our downstairs “master bedroom” is the perfect playroom for now. It was only months after moving in that I stumbled upon an article posted on Facebook by peacefulparenting on benefits of co-sleeping.

A whole new world opened up in front of me. After feeling so completely alone for almost five years, I suddenly was connected with a community of like minded parents who advocated bed-sharing for as long as a child needs it, among other things. I could barely believe that there actually are others out there. I mean, I always knew there had to be some families, but I never found any before, and I never knew there were so many. I hadn’t known that there was such a thing as “attachment parenting”, a description which fit our family pretty well. I hadn’t known there were places I could talk openly and honestly about our family. I hadn’t known there was a plethora of scientific evidence and studies showing how spot-on our parenting instincts can be despite all of the Western, modernized propaganda shoved in our faces from the time we’re born to tell us otherwise. I hadn’t known what amazing friends and sources of support were waiting for me in this safe, friendly, informed, gentle world of families. I hadn’t known. I hadn’t known. I hadn’t known.

My confidence started to grow and within a few months, I found myself being able to open up about co-sleeping as well as lots of other “taboo” parenting topics, such as intact vs. circumcision, natural breastfeeding, the real dangers of many vaccines, the proven harm of corporal punishment, and on and on and on. What really blew me out of the water weren’t the negative comments I’d get (I was used to those) but the positive feedback I received from so many moms (and even some dads!) whom I’d never suspected of sleep-sharing. It comes as a surprise every time I find another kindred spirit to whom I can relate, and the times when I learn that I myself have turned out to be a much-needed source of support for them are even more rewarding. I often marvel and wonder how there could be so many families like ours out there and how it somehow slipped past my radar; but then, I reason, I was once a closet co-sleeper, too.


  1. This is the second post I've read where I routinely stopped to read aloud bits to my mother and exclaim "yes, that exactly!"

  2. As another mother who stumbled into attachment parenting before realising exactly what it was, I can really identify with this post. There's something incredibly soothing for me when we are all asleep in the same bed, it just seems so natural; far more so than putting a tiny, vulnerable infant into a room by themselves!

  3. Love this so much!

    Co-sleepers and proud! x

  4. I had two people today ask me how long I will continue having my 18 month old sleep with us and I said as long as she needs to. It's so irritating that people see such a problem with co-sleeping. I would rather not tell anyone either.

  5. We coslept with our first until she was one - when she magically just started sleeping all night in her own bed. By that time, we were actually 'no-sleeping' when she was in our bed so we tried letting her sleep in her own and it was wonderful for everyone. Turns out, O needed her space. I can dig that. Of course it was months of waking up in a panic because I couldn't find her in bed with me before I got used to it. ;)

    This babe is 14 months, still rooming in, and co-sleeping for at least half of every night, if not more. She can sleep with us until she can sleep on her own or until 'no-sleeping' happens (although she is a much gentler and better sleeper than her sister was in our bed). I am, however, on the verge of letting the girls share a room, with the caveat that this babe is always welcome in our bed if she wakes at night.

    I just recently picked up a copy of The No Cry Sleep Solution. And cried at just the forward - yes, this is us!! I'm hoping to get a bit of insight into helping R sleep for longer periods of time without having to be on me or touching me in some way! But we will not EVER CIO. Blech on that jazz. Babes go through enough stress, I'm not adding to it.