My mom coslept with my younger siblings. They’d start out the night in the crib, and be in and out of my mom’s bed at various times in the night. I don’t think she coslept with me; in fact I think she must not have, because I have a really hard time sleeping if anyone is touching me. I like to have my own space. I didn’t know this about myself till I got married, which led to a lot of sleepless nights at first!
From my mom’s experience I learned two things: 1. Some babies won’t sleep in their cribs, so if you want to sleep, you have to bring these babies into bed with you. 2. Every morning you wake up tired. So I decided that I would sleep with my babies if they demanded it, but otherwise, it was cribs all the way! I didn’t want to wake up every morning telling everyone what my mom used to call the “Ballad of the Bedtime Woes.” My babies would sleep in their cribs so that I never had to deal with breaking them of the cosleeping habit later. (My brother John Paul was born before Joseph could sleep on his own (or through the night), so I slept with Joseph while my mom slept with John Paul. Not having a helpful teenage daughter, I was afraid of ending up in a situation like that.)
Well, that didn’t really work. I couldn’t manage nursing lying down with that annoying plastic shield, and I was afraid of losing it in bed anyway (which I did once, prompting a horrible disaster — it was the only one we had). So there goes reason #1 for cosleeping. Reason #2 was that baby might sleep better next to me — but he didn’t! He wiggled and kicked and just wasn’t sleepy. In his bassinet, I felt safe enough with him on his tummy, but in the bed I definitely wanted him on his back — and he wouldn’t sleep on his back. The best I got were 30-45 minute naps in between hour-long nursing and rocking sessions. Not to mention John got all nervous and kept asking where the baby was. Was he in the bed? In the crib? On the other side of me? Next to him? John can be a rather restless sleeper and was afraid of kicking the baby or something. I couldn’t sleep either because, as I’ve mentioned, I like my own space to sleep.
So I put him back in his bassinet and let him sleep more peacefully. He got nice two-hour intervals — pretty good for a newborn. And by three months he was occasionally sleeping through the night (I mean eight hours!) and the rest of the time only waking up once. I had a good sleeper, so there was no reason to complain.
Except that now I couldn’t sleep because I had to keep checking on him. He slept so deeply, and deep sleep is when SIDS happens. At least once a night I would wake up, not hear him breathing, and have to go put my hand on him to make sure he was okay. (Perhaps this is why babies who sleep in their parents’ room have their SIDS risk cut in half — mama wakes up if the baby sleeps too soundly.)
And daytime was kind of a trial. I swore he knew when I was trying to get a nap in. At first I would tiptoe into the bedroom during his nap to lie down for half an hour, but that woke him. Then I tried sleeping on the couch, but the second my eyes closed, he woke up. All I wanted was to “sleep when the baby slept,” but it wasn’t working! It never occurred to me to try cosleeping, since that didn’t work at nighttime. A few times I dozed lightly with him on my chest, but that was rare.
Then there was our trip to Seattle. We had weaned off the shield by then, so nursing lying down was an option at last. And a good thing, too — those long “nursey-naps” were one of the few things that got any milk in him at all. I still couldn’t sleep with him touching me, but I sort of dozed (being just as exhausted as he was) and got a little rest. And one cold night at my grandma’s cabin, I brought him into bed at 5 a.m. because he was freezing. He nursed, rolled onto his back, and slept that way for three more hours. We actually had to wake him to go to our family reunion! (Normally he’s up at six no matter what.)
Months passed, and he only rarely napped with me. He’d nurse lying down, but on the rare occasions that he fell asleep that way, he would wake up screaming. I figured it was because he was on his side next to me instead of on his tummy in his crib, so I carefully (and a little sadly) would transfer him to his crib once he fell asleep. Meanwhile his nighttime sleep was getting worse. Some nights he was up once like before, but some nights I’d be getting up three and four times a night, sleepily rocking him back to sleep for hours out of my night.
Then we went to Chicago, and stayed in a cold hotel room. We figured he’d be freezing in his little floor bed, so we brought him into bed with us. It was amazing! He slept his usual amount — up once or twice at night — and I managed to sleep too! The extra bonus was that my milk supply shot through the roof. I don’t think it was because he was nursing more, because he wasn’t. He wouldn’t nurse lying down (in his half-asleep haze he couldn’t figure it out), so I know when he nursed. I think the mere physical proximity makes all the difference.
Unfortunately when we got back, he wouldn’t cosleep again. I tried. But he was back to screaming if he found himself next to me.
Then he got a cold, right as fall was coming on. For a week our bed was the only place he could sleep. Not that he slept well. He slept very badly, often cried upon waking up (but sometimes didn’t) and needed to be walked and bounced around to go back to sleep. But in our bed, he could sleep. And, to my surprise, John mentioned at one point, as I was rocking and rocking him, “Go ahead and bring him into bed. I like it just as well.”
Finally I began to figure it out: on cold nights, he wanted to be with us. On warm nights, he preferred his crib. It gets hot in our room, and I think he was getting overheated next to me. So that’s what we’re doing right now. If it’s warm enough, he sleeps in his crib (and he always starts out there). If it’s cold, sooner or later he tends to end up in our bed. This morning I brought him in when he woke up the second time, at 5:15. I wasn’t ready to get up, and the room was very cold, so I brought him into bed next to me for a nurse and snuggle before getup time. On weekend mornings, he’s been known to stay there til after seven, and we get a nice wakeup in the morning as the three of us snuggle and smile at each other. I’m the only one in the family who isn’t a morning person, but I’m becoming one from all the morning smiles and laughter.
During the day, I often nap with the baby. If it isn’t too warm in the house and I feel sleepy when he goes down, I just lie down with him instead of putting him in his crib. I’ve gotten so I’m sound asleep before he is! Finally I am getting a chance to make up all the sleep I miss at night. We usually wake up from our nap at the same time, ready to get back to playing.
Why am I bothering to do this when the baby sleeps fine on his own? Well, it turns out there are way more reasons to cosleep besides “baby won’t sleep on his own” or “it’s more convenient for nursing.” Try these on for size:
1. Snuggles. Really, who does not need more of these? Especially now that Marko’s scootching all over the place during the daytime and doesn’t need nearly as much lap time as he used to. Plenty of time gazing at the sweet, sleeping face of a baby is a surefire recipe for more patience with the daytime issues. Plus, it’s a good chance for Daddy to get in on the snuggle time if he’s gone all day.
2. It’s safe. I wish I had a large-scale study to compare the safety of crib sleeping versus cosleeping, but there hasn’t been one done. The studies that exist, however, suggest that cosleeping is as safe or safer than crib sleeping when done properly. Breastfeeding mothers sleep more lightly, and their sleep cycles match their babies. That would explain why I always wake up a moment before Marko does when we’re napping together! And baby doesn’t fall as easily into that deep sleep that is such a SIDS risk.
3. It increases milk supply — as I experienced. Prolactin levels are highest at night, and they’re increased by contact and closeness with the baby. High prolactin also pays off in increased calm and patience, which I need!
4. It’s cozy and warm. Now that it’s wintertime, I’m realizing how hard it is to keep the baby warm without smothering him in blankets. A baby who is spending energy trying to keep warm is not spending it growing. Luckily, my body heat is the perfect warmer. Not to mention I stay warmer with a nice warm baby next to me!
5. Babies nurse more often. It may encourage a sleepy, distracted, or resistant baby to nurse a bit more often. That would explain why cosleeping babies never seem to have trouble keeping up with the growth chart.
6. Family time. Most couples sleep together. Why spend a lot of effort teaching babies to be okay sleeping alone when they probably won’t be doing that forever? In fact, I don’t intend to give all my kids their own rooms anyway, so sleeping completely alone isn’t going to be a big part of my baby’s life. Humans have been sleeping in pairs or groups for most of history — the solitary bed is rather a newfangled development. I think learning to sleep together is just as important as learning to sleep alone.
So, I don’t think we’re going to start exclusively cosleeping, but I’m glad that we’re slowly adding it to our arsenal of sleep possibilities. I kind of wish we’d started off cosleeping from the beginning; it’s so rewarding!
Sheila is the young mother of seven-month-old Marko, but she has years of experience as an attachment caregiver as an older sister, nanny, and teacher. Follow her reflections on natural parenting, real food, education, and Catholicism at A Gift Universe. G. K. Chesterton once said that it is wrong to look a gift universe in the mouth. Sheila’s trying to follow that advice as she looks for the gift in everything life hands her.
Sheila’s post is one of three that NPN is featuring as a special part of the November Carnival of Natural Parenting. To read more about what natural parenting means to our community as well as how you can write for the next Carnival, visit the November Carnival post.