Know the risks and follow your intuition.
In the West, we have been conditioned to believe that kids should sleep in their own rooms early in their infancy. Newborns do not sleep with their parents in the same bed – they get placed in a bassinet, and parents take turns dragging themselves out of bed to bottle-feed their child until they get exasperated after a few weeks. Then, they convince themselves that they are ‘training’ the baby to ‘self-soothe’ when the baby cries for mama alone in its crib. This is a very recent development for human beings. Within a few generations, most people have forgotten how beneficial it is for babies to sleep with their mamas.
Most mothers around the world sleep with their infants right next to them. They don’t know the struggle of traipsing bleary-eyed into another room to feed a baby that is consumed with confusion and terror over being alone and hungry. It doesn’t occur to them that separate rooms could be considered an ideal situation by any mother. They joyfully follow the lead of countless previous generations and keep their babies close day and night.
There has been a resurgence of discussions about co-sleeping in recent years. The term ‘fourth trimester’ has become widely known among new moms everywhere, and few have questioned the concept. When a mama bear hears her baby crying in another room, every cell of her body screams to comfort the little one. Many now understand that the infant is still gestating outside of the womb, and that it is right and good that the baby stays connected to ‘the mothership’. Babies’ heart rates, breathing, and sleep states are influenced by their mothers when they sleep together. Studies have emerged demonstrating that cortisol levels rise in babies who are forced to ‘cry it out’ – including babies who are seemingly quiet after a few nights – and we are still figuring out the long-term consequences of this phenomenon. It is an arduous and counterintuitive process for a mom to learn to ignore her pleading child all night long. While many moms have accidentally fallen into a comfortable routine of co-sleeping, many others have set an intention to keep their babes close to the breast all night, knowing that it is a primal calling.
Some people are passionately against co-sleeping, and they bring up the possibility that the mother could accidentally smother her infant while asleep. This is a valid concern for certain situations. It is strongly advised that parents who smoke or who are on certain medications never share a bed with their small children. It goes without saying that parents under the influence of alcohol should never share a bed with their children. If the bed is a few feet off the floor, baby should sleep in between the parents, not near the edge of the bed. There should be no extra pillows or thick blankets near the baby. The bed must be pushed against the wall or headboard with no gaps. There have been tragedies involving these small, overlooked gaps. It is wise to consult many different people and resources to learn more about the risks before making the decision to co-sleep. Pediatricians may offer stern warnings and even intimidating words. Accept their advice as an important part of your thorough research. Play devil’s advocate, avoid confirmation bias, and work hard to mine for information. Mothers that co-sleep will be an important resource. They will give you a clear picture of what co-sleeping looks like for their families. They may even offer ideas and tips that you never considered before. What do the dads think of co-sleeping? You may find that keeping some distance between your bed and the baby’s is what works for your family. Perhaps you will want to share a room for a year or two, but not a bed. You may find the inconvenience of walking a couple of feet to their bed negligible. Don’t let anyone shame you for your decision, and don’t do anything that feels uncomfortable to you. Take heed of defensive know-it-all’s that coldly dismiss crying babies as flawed bundles of nerves that need to be disciplined from the get-go. The idea that a baby can be ‘spoiled’ is outmoded well into the 21st century. Follow your intuition.
A really good compromise between bed-sharing and room-sharing is using a small crib with an open side that meets up with the end of the bed – a ‘sidecar’. Many mamas prefer this setup since it greatly reduces their fears of rolling over onto their babies. The baby will still be close enough to smell mama, and nursing will be easy. You just scoot up to the side of the bed and get that milk jug out, and everyone is happy!
My husband and I had been sleeping comfortably on a mattress on the floor long before the baby arrived. We decided to put the small, lightweight cotton baby bed on my side of the bed. After careful discussion, we also decided that it would be best for me to sit up to nurse the baby during the night for the first few months of her life. We didn’t want to take any risks, no matter how small they were. As the baby got bigger, we got more relaxed about the sitting-up rule. There was plenty of space for her to sleep on the end of the bed as I nursed her back to sleep on my side. Her baby bed was right there against the edge, too, which gave us peace-of-mind. Although I was very aware of her during the night, I slept well. I would briefly wake up to the baby latching onto me to nurse, and I was still well-rested the next day. For several months, the baby nursed at least three times per night. There were no hassles along the lines of getting up out of bed, moving into another room, preparing bottles, etc. My husband was able to get ample sleep for a productive day of work, and I was happy to be solely responsible for nightly feedings. I knew that the baby wouldn’t be little forever, and it was a precious time in our lives. I didn’t have a timeline for nursing, and I never bought formula. Co-sleeping and nursing are topics that inevitably overlap with each other. Moms that do one usually do the other for the benefit of their children. Once you gather information about back-to-basics gentle parenting, you often feel a calling to take this loving path that comes so naturally to most.
After experiencing the joy of co-sleeping, I have no regrets about not dealing with a baby wailing in another room. I am happy to have spared myself that experience. And I know that my husband was not stirred too much out of a deep sleep when the baby gently awakened me with light coos. There were no arguments, and it didn’t ‘kill’ intimacy. I really believe that if we had both been haggard and sleep-deprived from so-called ‘sleep-training’, intimacy would have flown out the window! Even with a baby, we were physically affectionate whenever we could sneak in the time – it was a priority for both of us. At the end of the day, good communication kept things harmonious with our new family dynamic. I look back on the early days with a sort of happy ache in my heart. I miss the chubby little peanut. I am so grateful to have cuddled with her as much as possible during the night. She is now the most delightful toddler. She enjoys her own bed most of the time. When she does crawl into our bed in the middle of the night, we don’t even wake up. She is our first ray of morning sunshine when we turn over and see her sweet face next to us. It melts my heart when my husband gazes at his little sleepyhead and says, “That is one cute kid.”
This stage will come to an end, and we will cherish the memories for the rest of our lives.