Good Night, Sleep Tight
Updated: May 9, 2018
I've been wracking my brain for my first blog post topic, when I thought I should kick off with the first introduction to parenting I had at about 23 weeks pregnant, when a friend handed me a copy of the book "Three In A Bed" by Deborah Jackson. Up to this point I'd read a little about growing a baby, but this was the first thought I'd really given to what happens when the baby is here and the idea of making choices about the sort of parent you are going to be, or would like to be. This book shaped my parenting journey.
I'm not one for self-help books, or how-to manuals, so this I could stomach because it isn't so much a guide as it is an exploration of how families around the world sleep. And in particular, how they sleep with babies and small children. I have to admit I didn't really take to the style of the book, but that wasn't important. What it did was introduce me to co-sleeping (sleeping in close proximity to your baby, be that sleeping in different beds in the same room or sharing the same bed). I'd never heard of the term or concept before. I simply presumed you stuck a cot in the smallest room in the house and hung a cute mobile from the ceiling. This book opened my eyes to the fact that this was just one way of doing it. And looking around the world at how different countries and peoples sleep, ours turns out to be possibly a rather odd way of going about things and not the most common. Making the baby sleep by herself in a separate room down the hall is a relatively new western phenomenon. Amongst various reasons behind its rise in popularity, it demonstrated wealth (a house with many rooms) and could thereby delineate class. And goodness knows, the western world likes a bit of oneupmanship, so it's not hard to see how separate sleeping could have taken hold.
So, for me, reading Three In A Bed meant that the seed of co-sleeping was sown in my mind. Babies and small children, I learned, like to be close, they like to snuggle, to be held. I say, I learned, because while it's a pretty obvious point to make because babies like to be cuddled, I'd not really put much thought into this and its ramifications particularly regarding sleeping arrangements. When my first daughter was born, NHS guidelines in fact were to have the baby sleep in the same room as you for the first 6 months at least. The thinking being that the close presence of another human being can be important for the baby. Possibly even important for her survival. There was also emphasis on skin-to-skin contact with your new baby: the touch of skin could keep the baby calm, content and help her regulate her breathing. And I found these tallied with the ethos of Three In A Bed. There were a lot of correlations and it all started to really speak to me. It spoke to me at the level of listening to what a new baby really needs rather than being caught in the trappings of what society deems acceptable. And more than this, it awoke in me my instinct to parent instinctively.
So our first baby came home with us and slept right next to us in her bedside cot. I was then fortunate enough to meet an amazing lactation consultant (and gentle sleep practitioner) who showed me the best and safest way to sleep with my baby next to me in bed and gave me the confidence to go for it. So we did a bit of both, bedside crib and bed-sharing and then, when she outgrew the crib, we replicated it with her cot attached to the bed and continued in the same vein.
And here we are 5 years later all in one big, comfy, snuggly bed, with another daughter in the mix! I certainly never intended to do quite this. But that is part of the point. We can become so entrenched in oughts and shoulds that we forget to just go with what feels right instinctively for us as parents, for the baby when she cries with her needs and for the child when she gets old enough to voice her own wants and needs.
Recently a friend happened to mention (I could see against her better judgement), that her 8 month old baby was still sleeping in their bed. She looked pained, embarrassed like she was a terrible parent making a shameful mistake. A baby-sitter had told her the baby really should be in his own cot and room and this had hit her hard. I felt so bad for her. She was going with what felt right for them all, and yet she felt that not only should she not enjoy the set up but that it was wrong.
I mention this because I feel it demonstrate what I find to be a really sad state of affairs. We can be so surrounded by advice on what we should do, when our baby should be sleeping, how much she should be sleeping, where she should be sleeping, that we forget not only that each baby is an individual but so are we as parents. And yet we feel that we should stick to the rules and make sure our baby is doing what she should be according to various baby manuals, that we don't allow ourselves to listen to our instincts, go with what makes us and our babies happy and ignore the mutterings outside our inner family circle.
It always strikes me as really warped that people coo in their millions over the sweet photos and videos on social media of mother animals snuggling up with their sleeping babies, probably hitting the Like button as their own human baby sleeps a few dark, silent rooms away on her own.
From our point of view, we co-sleep because it works for us. When our little ones were babies, I would wake when they stirred because they were right there next to me. There was no crying, they didn't have to wake up fully. I'd feed them in bed and they'd fall back to sleep quickly. The thought of having to get up out of bed made me wonder how people could do it. And then I suppose we just carried on with it, or more precisely, just didn't change to anything different. We had an unsettling period of having to move house a few times in quick succession and had a new baby, so it seemed like a good idea for our then toddler to keep her close and, perhaps in a small way as a result, she breezed through this period. During this time, our littlest one was born at a time when my boyfriend was away for several weeks leaving me on my own. Our baby would only sleep lying in direct contact with me, so as I'm human not bionic and wasn't able to be awake during the day for my toddler and be awake throughout the night for my baby to sleep on me, I had to figure out a way of surviving. And that turned out to be having her ling next to me in the bed, with my toddler in her own bed in the same room. It literally was a matter of survival and I found a way of getting us all to sleep at night. And then, again, we just didn't change what we did. Except that we've changed against the tide of what is 'normal' recently and have got a wonderfully big bed that we're all in! Bedtime is fun, easy and happy. It's always been that way. The girls sleep extremely well now. For the time being, they love our big shared bed! They've started to get curious about the idea of a bunk bed, so when they both feel the time is right we'll listen to them and it will be super exciting for us all.
I've never much cared about what other people think about how we parent. (A strange departure for me as I'm very sensitive to other people's opinions in all other aspects of my life and take the smallest criticisms to heart.). And although I don't talk much about our sleeping arrangements to many people (after all, why would you?), I love that we co-sleep
and our children love that we do. The moment they don't we'll reconfigure things.
Co-sleeping, of course, isn't going to be for everyone. But I wish more people were aware of it and felt confident enough in their own instincts and choices to do it in the face of what might be deemed socially 'normal'. It feels somewhat like a secret society that you belong to and keep under wraps, only admitting to it to one or two trusted friends who you suspect might be co-co-sleepers. But the irony is that it's a blooming large society! So many people do it whether by planned choice, because their little ones keep migrating back, or because it's simply the best way for them all to get some desperately needed sleep!
And, frankly, maybe most of us who co-sleep do it because it's actually indescribably beautiful.