From co-sleeping to sleep training to bed times and schedules, the topic of where and how our children sleep is a hot button issue in parenting circles I have found. But why? How did we become so obsessed with where our children sleep and why did it become such a divisive issue?
Before I had children, I knew my sleep would be interrupted, segmented, and take on a form I never knew before. I was somewhat prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was how opinionated, loudly opinionated, people would be about where my baby slept. It didn’t take me long to realize there were two definitive camps: Baby is welcome wherever Mom is OR Baby needs to learn how to self-soothe, i.e. sleep alone. Sure there were variations within the camps, but for the most part it appeared that parenting philosophies on sleep fell into an either or.
If you take a look at the evolutionary perspective, mommas and babies were never meant to be as separated as they are in today’s hectic times. Science overwhelmingly supports sleeping within close proximity to your babies with proven benefits ranging from increased breastfeeding success to the child’s well being to literally life-saving. My personal experiences have been in line with the science. Breastfeeding my babies at night was much easier when we slept in the same room together. Both of my children slept more soundly and peacefully in close proximity to me. I slept better too and was able to wake gently, nurse, and fall back to sleep in sync with my kids. My first born had a febrile seizure when he was 21 months old. If I had not been in the same room with him, tending to his nightly needs, it is highly likely I would have never known about his seizure. How sad to think he would have been all alone, seizing with no comforting parent to hold him or love him through this unexpected episode.
Plus, how do you think babies feel about all the fuss? Dr. James McKenna, the world’s leading authority on co-sleeping, offers this perspective: “Infants usually have something to say about it too! And for some reason they remain unimpressed with declarations as to how dangerous sleeping next to mother can be. Instead, irrepressible (ancient) neurologically-based infant responses to maternal smells, movements and touch altogether reduce infant crying while positively regulating infant breathing, body temperature, absorption of calories, stress hormone levels, immune status, and oxygenation. In short, and as mentioned above, cosleeping (whether on the same surface or not) facilitates positive clinical changes including more infant sleep and seems to make, well, babies happy. In other words, unless practiced dangerously, sleeping next to mother is good for infants. The reason why it occurs is because… it is supposed to.”
This makes so much sense. So why all the controversy? Here’s my take based on conversations and observations of the way our society currently functions.
1. RIGID SCHEDULES-We are living in a time where alarm clocks control us and schedules are handed to us rather then created by us. People are ignoring their bodily cues to sleep and rest to keep up with the demands of work or school. Sleep deprivation is a huge problem in this country and one that has staggering ripple effects. If adults aren’t getting enough sleep already, then they add in a baby or two to the mix…well, it’s a nightmare. Keep in mind, this is not the baby’s fault. Trying to force a baby to fit into your schedule will undoubtedly create frustration if you are not able to be flexible with your routine and sleep when your body needs to.
2. EXPECTATIONS- The old adage “Sleeping like a baby” needs to be thrown out with the bathwater. It is true that a comfortably sleeping infant is ever so peaceful and deep in sleep, but this doesn’t tell the entire story. Their sleep is no where close to the 8 hours in a row kind of sleep that we consider normal as adults. And therein lies the problem: Expectations do not equal reality. Babies are born after 9 months of gestation, but of all the primates, human babies are the least neurologically developed at birth–only 25%. “Parents might well think of human infants as final-phase fetuses who will spend their first three months — a fourth trimester — crossing the divide between womb and world.” This is from Susan Brink who wrote the book “Fourth Trimester: Understanding, Nurturing, and Protecting an Infant Through the First Three Months”. We must accept that our babies NEED us, night AND day. Just because they have arrived outside of our body does not automatically mean they are ready to be separated from our body. Especially separated in a completely different room with a fake nipple pacifier and plush toy or “blanky” for comfort. They desire closeness, touch, the sound of your heartbeat, the smell of your skin. They are built to be WITH their parents, not cut off abruptly from the warmth and security they felt while growing for months in your womb.
3. FEAR– There is no shortage of fear mongering in parenting circles. All kinds of reasons are given as to why sleeping in close proximity to your baby is so bad. From rolling over onto your child to causing problems with your marriage. Of course there are things to consider if your baby sleeps in the same bed as you–don’t drink alcohol, do drugs, or sleep beside your child if you have some medical condition that causes you to sleep too soundly. Healthy parents, who are in sync with their babies, will awaken, even if ever so slightly, when baby moves and can readjust if necessary.
And if a mother panda who is 700 times larger than her newborn can co-sleep without killing her baby, then I feel pretty confident lucid humans can do it too.
What about toddlers and young children? Shouldn’t they sleep in their own room, in their own bed? My first response to this is: “Why is that a rule?” Why do we have to create more stress by forcing children to be alone while they fight, tooth and nail, to be close to their parents at night? Adults create the problem then turn around and try to solve it by punishing and shaming their kids. It’s so silly, really. Think of all the books available claiming to teach parents how to get their kids to sleep. It’s a shame that parents aren’t listening to the real expert in the equation–their own child. Sleep isn’t meant to be so controversial. Just sleep wherever you get the best sleep and if that means the husband sleeps in a different room for a while or you sleep in a room with a child then so be it. Recognize this for the short season it is. Your kids will eventually long for their own space, their own room, and their desire to seek you in the night will wane. And it will be different for each child. There is no magical formula…just a peaceful change, a natural progression that respects their emotional and physical development. There won’t be squeals in the night or worries about monsters under the bed if the child has made the supported decision to sleep alone. There won’t be constant calls for attention or for water sips or snacks if the child has had a say so in his sleeping arrangements. If, as parents, we stop adhering to this notion that kids MUST sleep in room A, B, or C and parents MUST sleep together elsewhere from any of those rooms, the havoc in the night can be replaced with quiet, sweet calm. A dream come true.