The Decision to Co-Sleep

I first learned about co-sleeping before it was ever relevant in my life. In college, I took two anthropology elective courses with Dr. James McKenna, a leading authority on co-sleeping and SIDS. Although the courses were not about co-sleeping exclusively, the subject did come up from time to time. The way he explained it was, babies have been sleeping with their mothers for much of our evolutionary past. There’s been a very recent shift (in terms of millions of years) that has taken place in which mothers have been encouraged to put their babies down to sleep in a separate environment, like a crib in another room. At the time, everything this man said made perfect sense to me. It still does, especially as a strong breastfeeding advocate. So, I suspected that when the time came, assuming my partner was willing, I would be up for this thing called co-sleeping.

When I was expecting with our oldest, I was still open to co-sleeping, but planning on getting a hand-me-down crib from my sister at some point, when her daughter transitioned to a toddler bed (this would have been some time when Nora would have been five or six months old).

In the meantime, I had purchased a co-sleeper, intending to park it next to my bed when Nora came home. Instead, it mostly ended up being storage for blankets and diapers. I found, in those early days, after we came home from the hospital, that when I swaddled her up and placed her in the co-sleeper I was tuned in to every tiny noise and wriggle she made throughout the night. It was awful. I was constantly waking and checking on her to see that she was still breathing, and I got no sleep. I suspect this has more to do with my anxious personality, and that calmer, less nervous parents would have had a much better go of it in this kind of situation.

Let me explain something about me and sleep. I NEED IT. Badly. There are few things I will sacrifice for my sleep. I think it’s pretty telling that in college I had a strict, self-imposed weeknight bedtime of 10:00 p.m. Lots of my friends stayed up late burning the midnight oil. But me? It didn’t matter that there was a big test to cram for, or a paper to write. I needed my shut-eye. I think I pulled one all-nighter in four years of college, and it was probably on a physics test which I ended up bombing anyway.

So, waking every few moments to check on a gurgly, squirmy baby?  It was too much for my nerves. What did I do? I scooped that baby right up, placed her on my chest and spent the next two weeks sleeping with her there, propped up with oversized pillows to support my arms. It was all very comfy and secure. I told myself the kid wasn’t going anywhere. What’s the harm? She sleeps, I sleep. All was well. After those first two weeks, I felt comfortable moving her to the space beside me in bed.

The choice to co-sleep made breastfeeding easier too. Imagine me, the sleep hog, waking in the middle of the night to walk across the hall to pick up a baby, sit with her on a rocker to nurse, and then place her back in the crib, only to wake and do it again hours later. No thanks. I’d much rather stir only slightly, whip out a boob, get the job done, and then drift back to sleep, all while remaining in the warm comfort of my own bed.

Thankfully Liam was on board with all of this. He was nervous at first about us harming the girls in our sleep, but I think he came to quickly trust in my mothering instincts and the safety guidelines we followed. Also, I should note that having a king-sized bed has made all the difference. I can’t say that we’d have made the same choices if we had a smaller bed.

When I returned to work in the fall, when Nora was 4.5 months old, the decision to continue co-sleeping was an easy one. My niece was reluctant to let go of her crib, so that option was out. I knew I wanted to maintain the breastfeeding relationship, and losing sleep was not an option. I also recognized that I would only get to see Nora for a few hours each weekday evening. I thought if I could sleep with her, be physically close to her at night, it would make up for the time I was away from her during the day.

We ended up sleeping with Nora in our bed for almost two years, transitioning her to a mattress on the floor in a separate room right before Frances arrived. Even then, Liam continued to sleep with her there for many months. I am convinced this is why their relationship is as strong as it is today. She is her daddy’s girl for sure, preferring 19 nights out of 20 that he be the one to put her bed.

When we were expecting with Frances, I still brought the co-sleeper up from the basement, as though I might try and use it, be more relaxed the second time around. It never happened. She too slept on my chest for two weeks until I felt comfortable moving her onto the bed beside me. It just felt safest and most natural for us to do things this way. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I’ll even attempt to assemble the co-sleeper this time around with the boy.

Co-sleeping has brought us a lot of joy and comfort and bonding with our girls over the years. Few things are better than waking lazily a as family on a Sunday morning and greeting each other with cuddly hugs and kisses. But, it has its sure disadvantages as well. With the exception of a few months right before Frances was born, I haven’t slept through the night since the spring of 2011. Teething times are especially rough. And also those early-infant-development-milestone times when your kid is just awake for the hell of it for hours on end, wanting to hang out. During those moments we found ourselves frustrated and bickering with each other in the middle of the night, “Why the hell did we decide not to have a crib again? That’s it! We are going out tomorrow and buying one!”

We even experimented once or twice with one of the girls by bringing up a pack-and-play from the basement and letting her spend some time in there because we just couldn’t cope with her in our bed. However, after some time, that seemed cruel, watching her watch us, peering up over the top edge, screaming, longing to be back in our bed, nestled tightly among her parents. Of course, we relented and ended up pulling her right out.

Every time it seemed we were both ready to throw in the towel and move on with our lives and place the kids in a crib in another room, the bad time would pass, and we’d move on again to more peaceful nights, only to repeat the cycle over and over until each girl reached toddlerhood. The bad moments still came then, and still do come, but they were and are far less frequent. And, we’ve learned, we just have to patient and wait them out.

When you make a choice to share the bed with your children, you choose at the same time to give up time and space with your partner. This can also be a challenge. I know it’s for this reason alone that a lot of parents can’t imagine sleeping with their kids. It takes a concerted effort to make time to connect with your partner when you have babies around you at all times during the night. I like to think we believe it’s worth it. At least for the time being, until the next bad episode happens and we feel ready to to rush to a 24-hour BabiesRUs (do they even have these?) in the middle of the night to express order a crib.

Liam wonders aloud at least weekly, if not daily, if we are not doing a huge disservice to our kids by not teaching them how to fall asleep on their own. I wonder about it too. Self-doubt creeps in from time to time, especially when we hear of friends’ babies who have no problems sleeping through the night from a young age. All of the co-sleeping literature says we won’t have a fifteen-year-old sleeping in bed with us. But at this time, I’m not so sure we won’t. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Ahhh…to be able to share the bed once again with just my husband. Until that blessed time comes, we will enjoy making the most of our precious time snuggling with our babies while we still can.

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