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by Betsy McMillin
If you had told me, in the first twelve years as a parent, that I would be one to partake in the Family Bed (a.k.a. co-sleeping), I would have flatly said that you were without a doubt wrong, wrong, wrong.
I remember hearing at that same time about an acquaintance with twin girls who, as a family, slept together even as the girls were well into their fifth year. I found the thought unsettling. Quite weird even. Kids belong in their own beds, parents in theirs. But I went with my usual parenting mantra of “whatever works for you, but it sure doesn’t for me!”
That was fifteen years ago and co-sleeping wasn’t as popular or accepted as it is today. At least, you didn’t see as many studies or articles on the topic. Of those that you did see, most fell under the umbrella of alternative (i.e. lax, hippy-dippy, commune-type) parenting styles.
Today, many more parents are finding themselves falling into the pro-co-sleeping camp, yet there are still many studies and advice suggesting it isn’t a healthy or safe alternative. Parents choosing to co-sleep, yet not freely or proudly telling anyone.
As with any topic on parenting, one only needs to do a quick search and a bit of reading to find studies and numbers to support what they believe in.
Case in point:
According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/123/2/533.abstract):
Infant mortality rates attributable to accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed have quadrupled since 1984. The reason for this increase is unknown. Prevention efforts should target those at highest risk and focus on helping parents and caregivers provide safer sleep environments.
To strengthen that argument, look at this controversial (read: a bit insane) picture ad which shows a baby in bed with a butcher knife (gasp!! really????) from the Health Department of Milwaukee:
Counter all that with:
The Chicago Infant Mortality Study reveals that Breastfeeding Infants have 1/5th the Rate of SIDS. They report a nearly doubled SIDS rate for co-sleeping, but this study does not remove the powerful effect of smoking parents from their statistic. When other studies remove this behavior, they find the remaining infants enjoy a greatly lower rate of SIDS for co-sleeping versus isolated crib sleeping.There are two kinds of co-sleeping, that conscious decision made by highly attentive parents, and that coming from factors such as fatigue from partying or drinking. When sofa sleeping and wedging dangers are also removed, the family bed shines as safest.
And let’s not discount the opinions of other countries and cultures. As we saw with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and now Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe from France, different cultures have widely differing opinions on how to raise children and what works best. Should one want to strengthen their argument and find studies to support their choice on any topic, all they need to do is look for studies from other countries. Google and you will find.
From naturalchild.org (www.naturalchild.org/guest/tami_breazeale.html):
Anthropological evidence of co-sleeping societies is abundant. In reviews of literature on co-sleeping societies Thevenin (1987) and Lozoff and Brittenham (1979) noted classic studies which included nearly 200 cultures, all of which practiced mother-infant co-sleeping even if in some cultures the sleeping location of the father was separate. Examples of cultures included in the studies were the Japanese, the Korean, the Phillipino, the Eskimo Indian, the !Kung San of Africa, and the natives of Okinowa (Lozoff & Brittenham, 1979; Thevenin, 1987). The description of the Okinowan Indian culture included observations both of parent-child co-sleeping until the age of six and unrestricted breastfeeding, as well as of characteristics of adult behavior that are very consistent with secure attachment histories (Thevenin, 1987). Co-sleeping is the cultural norm for approximately 90% of the world’s population (Young, 1998).
I went by the rules. I was comfortable with for my first five kids: newborn in a bassinet by my bed until about three to five months (depending on how well they slept and how often they nursed in the night). Then into the crib in their own room, or a shared room with siblings. Transitioned out of a crib between two- and three-years-old into a toddler bed or “big kid” bed. Very clean, simple, obvious—not to mention, what the majority of child rearing books advocated (then and now), as well as the AAP (American Association of Pediatrics).
This was the way to go for our family, and it was the right choice at the time. It was what I wanted and believed in, and I still understand the value of this way of child rearing. I loved tucking a toddler into their own bed, reading a story or two, snuggling a bit then tip-toeing out of the room. Ah, silent “me time.” I loved nursing a drowsy baby to sleep and then carefully laying her/him down in a cozy crib. I also loved having a few hours with my husband. I knew it was a crucial part of their development (and my sanity): being independent and falling asleep on their own.
So now, here I am, fifteen years later, taking part in a completely opposite style of parenting on this issue. It is not a choice I purposely made, but one that snuck up on me, quite literally, in the middle of the night. It started with the convenience of nursing a baby in my bed, then enjoying better sleep for me since she slept better right with me. Then, there was opposition as I tried to put her in a crib. No can do, and therefore less sleeping for me. So in our bed she stayed. And stayed. And stayed. I had no idea how much I would enjoy this new, quite different, style. It didn’t take long for me to figure out or understand why I flip-flopped on the co-sleeping issue, which leads to yet another Parent Trap Confession: This is my last baby, and I am holding on to her and my fleeting moments of mothering a toddler. Holding on fiercely, somewhat afraid of what happens when I no longer have little ones to snuggle, someone to do so many little and big things for, to laugh with in that silly three-year-old way, and to love on as only a mother can love on a small child. I have older kids, so as much as I know they need me in so many other ways (emotionally and physically) and I can love on them endlessly, it is without a doubt, different. So I pull her in close at night and soak up as much of her, of motherhood, as I can.
Does it mean I loved and snuggled my first baby any less than my last? No, but maybe in a different way. With first (or only) children, parents are loving the quiet snuggles yet at the same time constantly looking ahead to what happens next. What exciting new skill will be learned/mastered? What fun new experiences will be discovered? With subsequent children, there is a tendency to slow down, to enjoy the moment, or in my case, to try to put the brakes on and hold everything as long as possible. There is also the tendency to change rules a bit and loosen up somewhat. To be more comfortable in our role and trust our gut.
I have a good friend who did not practice co-sleeping with her children, yet her youngest was a frequent flyer in the parental bed. Now, at age eleven, when it is bedtime, she’ll grab her Kindle, come into her parents room and plop down between mom and dad for some quality reading time before falling asleep. On occasion this is great, and very sweet especially as they are reaching those difficult “I want little to do with my parents” tween/teen phase. But some nights it is an inconvenience. And that is where I see co-sleeping to be not such a great idea. Something that is cozy, and sweet and comforting becomes something of an inconvenience for the parents. There are many nights when I don’t want her in my bed. I want her to fall asleep in another room, not follow me everywhere as I do my mandatory 76 nighttime things, saying “Mumma! Put your jammies on! I want to go to bed and nuggle!” There are many nights I do not want her between my husband and me (pretty much every night for him). So until I make a clear break with her, this is difficult.
So, how to decide, when you can’t trust your gut? We can turn to our trusted friends, other parents or good ole Google.
It comes down to one question, a question that we need to answer on a daily basis: What, do you, as a parent, want to do in this situation? Sometimes the answer falls under “it is not what I want to do, as much as what I need to do”. Tough call to make many times, difficult one to answer to, especially when the want is warm little toddler who wraps her arms around my neck in her sleep, reaches out to me throughout the night. And the need is a child who needs to be a bit more independent.
I know the need is coming. But for now I will stick with the want: what I want, what she wants, and maybe what we both need right at this moment.
I’ll look to Dr. Sears and his sage advice:
An infant and mother sleeping side by side share lots of interactions that are safe and healthy.
A mindset more than a place to sleep.
Sharing sleep involves more than a decision about where your baby sleeps. It is a mindset, one in which parents are flexible enough to shift nighttime parenting styles as circumstances change. Every family goes through nocturnal juggling acts at different stages of children’s development. Sharing sleep reflects an attitude of acceptance of your baby as a little person with big needs. Your infant trusts that you, his parents, will continually be available during the night, as you are during the day. Sharing sleep in our culture also requires that you trust your intuition about parenting your individual baby instead of unquestionably accepting the norms of American society. Accepting and respecting your baby’s needs can help you recognize that you are not spoiling your baby or letting him manipulate you when you welcome him into your bed.
If you are considering co-sleeping and think it may work well for you, check out the entire article from Dr. Sears (www.askdrsears.com/topics/sleep-problems/co-sleeping-yes-no-sometimes), it is loaded with helpful info as well as a tidy list with explanations of seven benefits of co-sleeping, both medical and developmental.
Also, pay heed to the following list of suggestions on how to achieve safer co-sleeping from: http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/sleep/cosleeping.html#
I must interject regarding the above site. One safety suggestion is:
* Don’t use pillows, comforters, quilts, and other soft or plush items on the bed. Consider using a sleeper instead of blankets.
How does one expect to sleep in a bed with no pillows, comforters, soft anything?? Are WE supposed to sleep in sleepers as well??? I envision a family all in one bed, stiffly sleeping on their backs, all in footy jammies. Crazy!
If I were to have another baby (ah, if only I were ten years younger!), which sleeping style would I choose, knowing the personal benefits and downfalls of each? Today, right now, as my three-year-old is by my side, professing her love for me (ah, sweet toddlers) I would choose co-sleeping, hands down. Tonight, when I want to hang with my husband, watch a late movie with my 15-year-old, or just read in bed alone while sipping tea?
I may just give you another answer.