Parent Moments: A Family That Shares Sleep
When pregnant with my oldest son 10 years ago, my husband and I -- like most expecting parents -- set up a crib complete with cute, coordinating sheets and a baby mobile dangling overhead.
But as it turned out, we never put our baby in it.
Instead, he snuggled in next to me on that very first night home from the hospital, and we loved it. People kept commenting on how rested I looked: Since I didn't have to get out of bed to nurse him, we both stayed comfortable and groggy during feedings and fell easily back to sleep afterward. Plus, I liked being able to listen to his breathing and give him a little nudge if it got irregular -- instead of laying awake worrying, as is so natural for new moms to do.
Slowly but surely, the unused crib filled with laundry and toys as we got more and more comfortable with "the family bed" and we never looked back. But as I was soon to find out, sleeping alongside your baby -- also called "co-sleeping," "sleep sharing," or "the family bed" -- has plenty of critics.
There are safety concerns, many of which I learned about via scary pamphlets and advertisements warning parents to "Never sleep with your baby." But when I read the actual studies, I found that the things that can make co-sleeping unsafe are mostly factors that can be controlled. For instance, putting a baby to sleep on a waterbed or other soft, squishy surface is a no-no, whether there's an adult in the bed or not. And drinking, using drugs or taking medication that might make you drowsy and then getting in bed next to a tiny newborn isn't a good idea, either (duh).
But far from being some fringe alternative choice, parents have been sleeping next to their babies since the beginning of time -- and more families are sleep sharing than you might think, at least part of the time. For instance, babies who spend most of the night in their own cribs might still be brought into Mom and Dad's bed for a midnight feeding or midday nap. So I wonder why more experts -- besides Dr. James McKenna, Ph.D., who's done a great job of this -- aren't talking about ways to safely share sleep with babies, rather than simply condemning it. After all, when a baby dies due to an unsafe crib -- which does happen with some frequency -- the answer is always that we need to make cribs safer, not that we need to quit using them altogether.
There's another criticism of co-sleeping: the idea that babies need to learn to be independent and that sleeping with their parents just encourages over-dependence and poor sleep habits. But the way I see it, babies are meant to be dependent on Mom and Dad for a good chunk of their early life; it's a normal part of being an infant. As they get older, babies -- with the help and support of their parents -- eventually grow into independence. And I'm happy to report that my three older children all left the family bed willingly and now sleep solidly through the night without issues.
I'm not arguing that every family should co-sleep; it doesn't work for all parents or all babies. But when it works, it works; and I'm glad that I gave it a whirl those 10 years ago. I'm co-sleeping with child No. 4 now -- following safety precautions, of course -- and he's happy, his dad and I are happy, and we've all been getting enough sleep since Day 1.
Seems like a win-win-win to me.