Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why all the talk about co-sleeping

I read this quote today and I think it captured a lot of the feelings I’ve tried, at times unsuccessfully, to portray on this blog.

“I don’t begrudge Ferber the right to preach Ferberization or parents who prefer sleeping sans child the right to practice it. Live and let live. What’s annoying is the refusal of Ferber and other experts to reciprocate my magnanimity. They act as if parents like me are derelict, as if children need to fall asleep in a room alone.”—Robert Wright, Time magazine

I know I’ve talked a lot about co-sleeping on this blog and I have perhaps given the impression that it’s the only way to go. Truth is, I think it’s much better for a family to sleep happily apart than to sleep unhappily together. I truly do not mean to be pushy about the subject. If solitary sleeping is working well for you, then by all means, continue.

So, why do I talk about it so much?

There are so many negative things written and said about co-sleeping. Of all of the decisions that we have made as a family, it’s the one that gets the most flack and I just don’t think that’s fair. In being a co-sleeping mom I’m accused of putting my baby at risk of suffocation, neglecting my sexual relationship with my husband, causing sleep problems, creating an unhealthy co-dependence between mother and child, and some even go so far as to say that I’m somehow sexually abusing my child simply by having him in my proximity while we sleep. At least in my experience, none of this can possibly true. I’ve taken great precautions to make our bed a safe place for the baby; found ways to continue sexual intimacies with my husband; prevented a whole host of sleep problems by modeling how sleep is a pleasant thing to enter, stay in, and exit; and I feel I’ve created an environment in which my children will grow up with an intact sense of self and others around them rather than a dependence on material objects. As for the accusation about inappropriate sexual behavior, my thought is that something has gone wrong in our society where people do not get the love and touch they need in appropriate ways and in turn, seek for it in inappropriate ones. In no way do I believe appropriate co-sleeping can or will cause inappropriate behavior later in life.

In any case, can you see why I get a little excited about talking about its merits? There is so much negative stuff out there and I feel that if I can change even one person’s mind about the practice, whether or not they choose to do so in their family, then I feel I’ve made life a little easier for the other co-sleeping families out there.

There’s also a part of me that wants to say, “It’s okay if you want to do it.” Before and right after Hyrum was born, I was so terrified of letting him into our bed for the reasons I stated above. I loved holding him and feeling him near me, and what’s not natural about that? You’ve shared a body with this little person for his entire existence. I think it’s only natural and intuitive to want to keep them near you at the time when they’re most vulnerable—in a state of sleep. And yet I was terrified. I was terrified because I had read these words in the self-purported book of infant care:

“It is common for children in third-world countries to sleep in the same bed with their parents…poverty forces the sleeping arrangement…The family bed is unsafe….Sleeping with your baby creates needs but doesn’t fulfill them...There is not a single benefit gained that can possibly outweigh the risks.”—Ezzo and Bucknam (223-25).

Those are some pretty strong words--and I, somehow, believed them. And so, I dutifully put Hyrum in his cradle every night and after a few weeks, moved him to his own room. I did so because I thought, as the authors seem to suggest, that here in America we’re above co-sleeping. Here we know that it is unsafe. Here we know that only bad things can come of it.

And then I stumbled upon co-sleeping by sheer accident after my husband brought my baby to me one time in the middle of the night to feed. From my memory it was during those ridiculous few weeks in grad school where I had a 15-page paper due in my pedagogy class, my graduate recital to give, my theatre comps, two rounds of grad orals, and my recital paper due one right after the other—all with a newborn. There was no rest for this weary mommy. That night, before I could even get myself ready to feed him, my baby had fallen back asleep. He just wanted his mommy. He didn’t need to eat, he just wanted physical contact and touch. In my exhaustion, I fell asleep with him in the crook of my arm and didn’t awake until Brennan found me asleep in this state and asked if he should take Hyrum back to his crib for me. I was reluctant because it felt so pleasant, but I said yes because that’s what I was supposed to do.

Over the next few weeks I thought to myself, “hmmm…I don’t think I would have rolled over on to him.” After having him there with me and noticing how natural it felt, it just seemed like a ridiculous claim. Upon further investigation, I realized my gut instinct on that one was right. Breastfeeding moms don’t roll over on their babies unless there is something altering their judgment—drugs, smoking, medical sedation, or extreme exhaustion—as long as they have taken proper safety precautions to make their sleeping environment suitable for their babies. I also learned that in countries where breastfeeding and co-sleeping are the norm, overlaying is unheard of and SIDS is a pure anomaly. In fact, natural birthing pioneer Dr. Michel Odent, upon his visit to China in 1977, inquired as to the number of incidents of "cot death" (SIDS) in China. He reported:

"Nobody understood my questions; the conept o sudden infant death or cot death was apparently unknown amonth professionals and lay people in such different places as Peking, Hsian, Loyang, Nanking, Shanghai, and Canton. Furthermore I learned that Chinese babies sleep with their mothers, even in the most westernized families, such as the families of interpreters. Ever since then I have held the view that, even if it happens during the day, cot death is a disease of babies who spend their nights in an atmosphere of loneliness and that cot death is a disease of societies where the nuclear family [rather than the extended family] has taken over."

And so I started questioning what I had read and heard. When I shared my discovery with people, I almost always received negative criticism. Hardly anyone told me to go with my gut on this one. Even people who believed that the standard claims were incorrect would instill fear by saying, “You’ll never be able to move him out” or “you’ll need to break that habit now rather than later.”

I’ve concluded that we live in a culture afraid of weaning—at least from some things. From pacifiers, to breastfeeding, to co-sleeping—we spend so much time worrying about how we’ll stop that we don’t enjoy it while it’s there. I wonder how many people don’t make changes in their lives—from quitting smoking to better health—simply because they’re afraid of the weaning process. However, we put children in diapers knowing full-well that they’ll potty-train someday and few mothers are afraid of weaning their child off of infant formula. As with all things, children wean from the family bed when they, and their parents, are ready.

In any case, I hope I don’t come across as overbearing in my praising of co-sleeping. My intention isn’t to convert, simply to explore the option. And if there’s anyone out there looking for permission, I hope they find it here. It’s okay to co-sleep, it’s okay not to co-sleep. It’s okay to breastfeed, it’s okay not to breastfeed. It’s okay to cry-it-out, it’s okay to not cry-it-out. Everything has its pros and its cons so I hope the mud slaying stops her—and that goes for me too.



  1. I love your blog--I learn so much! Thanks for sharing and being so open; it's refreshing :)

  2. You really have influenced my change if opinion in the cry it out method. Just an fyi

  3. Not sure if you remember me, I'm the other red headed Amy from western :)

    I have tried to take the 'less stress' method with raising my little guy. EVERYONE always says that the time when little ones are little goes by too fast and they wish they would have enjoyed it more. So, I decided when he was born that I would do just that, and not worry so much about what I'm "supposed to do" So, my little guy slept on his stomach and my chest until he let me know he didn't want to anymore. He is in a cradle in our room still and sleeps with me in bed when he has a hard time going back to sleep in the early morning, or when I want to snuggle him for a nap. I am so glad there are others out there who are ok with not following what society says is best for us and our babies.