If you would have told me five years ago that we would wake up in bed with two toddlers, I would have laughed, then probably cried. Our bed was a sacred space for the two of us; a place where we found a safe haven when we were at our most vulnerable, a place of rest and rejuvenation. It was not a place for little children.
Or so I thought.
We are a Co-Sleeping Family
Co-sleeping (more specifically, bed-sharing) became extremely valuable for us because our firstborn was not what people would call a “good sleeper.” His frequent nighttime wakings and our decision not to sleep-train is ultimately what led us to the “family bed.” It was the best solution for us, and when Lucy came around, we welcomed her into bed with us from the very first night. We’ve been sleeping together ever since.
It took a little while for me to be comfortable admitting that we are a co-sleeping family. There sure are a lot of stigmas attached to it, especially in popular America culture. I’m sure you know what I mean: it’s unsafe (even deadly); it’s weird; it makes children unhealthily dependent on you; it robs you of times of intimacy with your spouse; it makes you a kid-centric home; kids will never learn to sleep on their own.
Despite this list of concerns, we’ve persisted with co-sleeping and a family bed. It hasn’t all been wonderful cuddly goodness, believe me, but it still is what works best for us.
We think it can work for a lot of other families that have not yet figured out what’s best for their nighttime parenting experience.
I’ve generated and answered a list of questions we’ve been asked (or questions we’d imagine we’d be asked). I am pulling from our experience, but also from some research. I hope that this article can help provide some perspective for your questions about co-sleeping.
I heard bed-sharing is really dangerous for babies. Can it really be done safely?
Bed-sharing can be dangerous for babies, just as their own crib can be dangerous if it isn’t a safe-sleeping environment. The main concern about bed-sharing is accidental asphyxiation, whether by being rolled onto, getting stuck between a mattress and something else, or because of unsafe bedding.
The thing is, bed-sharing can be done safely and there are countries around the world that have high co-sleeping rates and low SIDS/SUID rates. We bed-shared intermittently with Levi as a baby and nightly with Lucy. Because we did not have any of the risk factors (we had a healthy, full-term baby; we don’t smoke, drink, or use any drugs or medication that influence our sleep, we are not largely obese, I breastfed) and were educated on how to bed-share safely, we felt confident we could co-sleep safely.
Co-sleeping experts argue that safe co-sleeping is actually a preventative measure against SIDS. In the book Good Nights: The Happy Parents’ Guide to the Family Bed, they tell a story of a co-sleeping mother who woke up to see her six week old baby blue in the face. She began CPR immediately and he was rushed to the hospital where they determined he had a case of sleep apnea. “Both the pediatrician and the baby’s mother were sure that if she hadn’t been sleeping with him when he had his first episode of sleep apnea, he would have died. Because she slept with him, she was sensitive to his breathing rhythms and woke up when she sensed a change” (pg 55).
It’s an unfortunate reality that some babies die while they’re sleeping, sometimes in their own crib, sometimes in their parents’ bed. As the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory’s website states: “No infant sleep environment is risk free.” But bed-sharing itself isn’t always always the culprit like the media may make it seem.
If you still feel uncomfortable with bed-sharing, or if you believe you cannot do it safely, consider co-sleeping by room-sharing or using a different sleep surface than your baby.
Doesn’t bed-sharing make kids…well…weird?
People may think my kids are weird. I don’t know. Generally, though, we receive a lot of compliments on how capable, social, intelligent, fun, courageous, bright, and independent they are (of course, our children are flawed and demonstrate those flaws with expected frequency).
What I’ll offer are some interesting insight about co-sleeping children from various psychological studies, as quoted in Good Nights (pg 23):
- “Children who never slept in their parents’ beds were harder to control, less happy, had more tantrums, handled stress less well, and were more fearful than routinely co-sleeping children.”
- “Co-sleepers showed a feeing of general satisfaction with life.”
- “Children who didn’t co-sleep end up getting more professional help with emotional and behavioral problems than co-sleepers.”
- “Children who had co-slept felt they weren’t as prone to peer pressure as others their age.”
Why might this be? I believe it’s because co-sleeping children tend to have a healthy attachment to their parents, meaning that they believe that they are worthy of love and can trust other people to meet their needs.
We believe in and practice attachment parenting, which basically means that we respond quickly, consistently, and with sensitivity to our children’s needs. For us, this included practices such as birth bonding, baby-wearing, breastfeeding on-demand, extended breastfeeding, responding to our children when they’re crying or upset, and bed-sharing. While some of these are “on the rise” in American culture, these are not, by any means, popular practices. In fact, many consider these practices weird.
But as far as I can tell, attached children aren’t weird at all; in fact, I find they’re well-adjusted, independent, and healthy.
How does napping go when co-sleeping with littles?
I’ll speak to my own experience here: our children sleep best when near us, and that includes nap time. As I am typing this, Lucy is snuggled up on my chest, napping.
Does that mean they have to be touching us to sleep? No. In fact, I laid Lucy down and she slept for over an hour by herself; then when she woke, I picked her up, nursed her, and let her sleep on me. Levi, who has grown in his independence, is upstairs in his bed, where he’s been the past two hours. He always naps alone, these days.
When Levi was an infant, though, he would sleep sometimes as few as 15 minutes alone before he’d wake up crying. I chose to allow him to sleep on me because that was how he rested best. I wrote almost all of my Master’s thesis with him asleep on me.
Now, this was fine with me. As a stay-at-home mom, I was cool with my babies sleeping on me for part or all of their nap time. I enjoyed the snuggling and could rest, read, or get work done on the computer while they slept for up to three hours.
Does this work for everyone? No. Every parent and child is different. Every situation is different, too. I am unsure of how it would have go if they went to day-care. I am sure that if I didn’t let them nap on me in the early stages of their lives, they would have taken a lot shorter naps, and I think that would have driven me nuts.
You can choose to snuggle with your kids when they nap, or lay them down on a safe sleep surface alone (you know, a flat, firm mattress without the fluffy stuff). It’s ultimately up to you.
What about sex?
This is a legitimate question. Contrary to what people may believe, co-sleeping has not had a negative impact on our sex life. I think parenting in general has made it more difficult, if I’m honest.
Would you agree? Whereas anytime, anywhere was the norm before kids, now we have to be a lot more intentional, finding windows of time, pockets of energy, and an appropriate space. That happens whether or not you co-sleep with your kids.
But as for co-sleeping itself, the main thing is getting creative. In other words: think outside the bed. Good Nights has an entire chapter called “Love in the Laundry Room: Keeping the Sizzle in Your Sex Life.” In it, they argue that many co-sleeping couples find a thrill in putting their kids down to sleep in their room, than finding ways to be intimate…well…anywhere else. If the bed is still the preferred space, utilize it while kids are playing quietly or watching a show or napping, or use a guest bedroom.
Some couples argue that exercising creativity and the thrill of stealing moments together has actually improved their sex-life.
Others state that bed-sharing has generated even more feelings of love and affection for their family and their spouse, leading to a greater emotional intimacy in their marriage.
Another benefit of co-sleeping is generally more sleep for parents, which means more energy for intimacy, whether physical or emotional.
So, don’t fret – co-sleeping itself will not destroy your marriage. It can actually enhance it.
The main point is carving out time for intimacy with your spouse, whether you co-sleep or not. This means having sex together, but also snuggling, talking together, going on dates, practicing kindness, communicating openly and honestly, and respecting each other’s needs.
But doesn’t co-sleeping hinder your child’s independence? Will they ever learn to sleep alone?
“Oh, your child doesn’t sleep great? Comfort them! Snuggle them! Bring them into bed with you!” Said no American ever.
One of the biggest complaints against co-sleeping is wrapped up in this idea of independence. The idea of needing parents to fall asleep makes people dreadfully uncomfortable. That’s why sleep-training is such a big thing. I think everyone is recommended to sleep-train their children at some point, whether by an article, advertisement, pediatrician, family member, or friend. Get that child independent!
The problem is, that’s not developmentally appropriate, especially for newborns. Ferber himself, the man who is presented as the figurehead for crying-it-out, even states that not comfortable with the way parents practice it in the extreme (see this interview with Parenting magazine for his current perspective).
We don’t insist that week-old babies stop peeing themselves. Nor do we shove full plates of food in front of a newborn. We don’t teach our five-year olds to drive. Nor do we push our ten-year olds out of the house to find a job and fend for themselves. Why? Because they’re not ready. They still need us.
The value of independence, especially in our culture, is strong. However, we may be going about it all wrong. Thomas Lewis, M.D., states: “Too often, Americans think that self-rule can be foisted on someone in the way a traveler thrusts a bag at a bellhop: Compel children to do it alone, and they’ll learn how; Do it with them and spawn a tentacled monster that knows only how to cling…Independence emerges naturally not from frustrating and discouraging dependence, but from satiating dependence. Children rely heavily on parents, to be sure. And when they are done depending, they move on–to their own beds, houses, and lives” (Good Nights, pg 24-25).
This concept of children needing independence at bed time is pretty new, from a historical perspective; it was first encouraged in the 1700 and 1800s in Europe because of misinformation about the spread of illness and because “destitute mothers” would occasionally smothered their children in bed on purpose because they couldn’t afford to raise them (Good Nights 29-29).
Nighttime independence from parents is definitely an anthropological anomaly; human children, like all other mammals, are biologically programmed to be near and sleep with their mother for nourishment, warmth, and protection, and humans have slept with their children all over the world for all of human history, and many still do today.
The reality is, the issues of independence and co-sleeping are generally a result of our cultural perspective of what independence is. I believe (in accordance with attachment theory) that co-sleeping can actually build more independence in children in the long run, because they feel safe and secure and have an emotionally stable foundation from which to explore the world.
Eventually, they will sleep on their own. I don’t know when that will be. But when they’re ready, they will.
Do you like having a family bed?
Depends on the day (or night). Ninety-percent of the time, we would say yes. Just last night, though, Kevin woke up bleary eyed, saying Levi kept moving in his sleep until Kevin was sleeping on a knife-edge at the end of the bed. This happens from time to time, and those nights can be rough.
But most times, it’s really fun to be all snuggled up together. It’s peaceful. It’s cozy. It makes our nights more relaxing. We feel connected as a family. It has become an important part of our family culture.
We generally put the kids down on their own surface to start, so we still have space for ourselves and each other. That’s helped provide a really good balance for us. Then, when they wake up, we welcome them in bed.
And, we can rest in good conscience, knowing that we are providing comfort for our children in the deep dark of night. I sleep more deeply, even though my sleep may be interrupted by movement, because I’m not anticipating having to get out of bed to parent. We have yet to deal with nightmares or the “I can’t sleep” rituals. We just hold our children until they fall asleep, and if they wake up, we’re within arms reach. It’s…easy.
Are there times when I wish they would sleep independently on their own through the night? Of course. I miss my own independence, as I believe all parents do at some point or another. It’s hard to be needed all the time.
However, we know this is for a season (although we are unsure how long the season will last). And parenting is a call to care for the needs of our children. This is one of the best ways we know how.
Interested in learning more?
Check out our co-sleeping and bed-sharing resource page.
Read on why we co-sleep here.
Read on how to co-sleep here.