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The Family Bed: Sleep with your baby - and sleep better.

Posted Feb 18 2009 11:59am

By Michelle Kennedy Hogan
“If you don’t let that baby sleep somewhere on his own,” the prickly nurse said, “he’ll have attachment issues later on.”

“Really?” I said. “Like he might actually like me in 10 years?” This was after the birth of my fifth baby - so I was a bit more confident in my parenting skills. However, I was not so confident 16 years ago when I had my first, and then quickly after, my second baby. Both of whom slept with me. Often at the same time.

My two oldest children are now 16 and 15 and let me tell you - neither has any desire at all to spend anytime in my room - let alone my bed.

So, we can put this to rest right now. If you let your baby sleep with you he or she will not go to college with a pillow for you. I promise. It will not happen.

I started co-sleeping with my first child about two days after we got home from the hospital. After a fairly traumatic first “natural” birth experience both Matt and I were pretty exhausted. After my first two sleepless nights as a frazzled parent, I brought the poor sobbing baby I was already in love with into bed with me so I could lay down while I nursed him (which also wasn’t going so great). I promptly fell asleep. So did he. When he woke up an hour or so later, I awoke with a start - only to realize how simple that had been. I laid him on my chest and burped him (I soon learned to keep a spit-up rag on my chest!). And then we rolled over and he nursed on the other side. I fell asleep again. And so did he. Until about 7 a.m. the next morning. A full five hours of blissful sleep.

Why had no one told me this before? Why was this handy little tip not in all of the baby books? After a few more days of getting an almost adequate amount of sleep, I decided to look into this method of sleeping. Without Google to go to (way back when), I headed to the local library and learned that my new method of getting sleep was not an approved form of parenting.

Most of the books cited rolling over as one of the main reasons for not co-sleeping with your baby. I thought about it for a while. I woke up, each time, with Matt, in the same position as I was in when I fell asleep. He was always nestled in my arms - in “nursing” position when I fell asleep and when I woke up. I didn’t buy that as an argument.

Other arguments against it cited smoking and drinking as reasons not to co-sleep. I’m assuming that smoking in your bed with your sleeping infant is a bad idea, as is stumbling into bed drunk with him. Well, I didn’t smoke and I was, when I had Matt, under the drinking age - so I didn’t drink either (no, really, I didn’t).

The benefits of co-sleeping have been well documented.
According to an article by Dr. William Sears, a renowned pediatrician and the father of eight, these studies have all been done on mothers and infants ranging from two to five months in age. Here are the preliminary findings based on mother-infant pairs studied in the sleep-sharing arrangement versus the solitary-sleeping arrangement (Elias 1986, McKenna 1993, Fleming 1994; Mosko 1994):

1. Sleep-sharing pairs showed more synchronous arousals than when sleeping separately. When one member of the pair stirred, coughed, or changed sleeping stages, the other member also changed, often without awakening.

2. Each member of the pair tended to often, but not always, be in the same stage of sleep for longer periods if they slept together.

3. Sleep-sharing babies spent less time in each cycle of deep sleep. Lest mothers worry they will get less deep sleep; preliminary studies showed that sleep-sharing mothers didn’t get less total deep sleep.

4. Sleep-sharing infants aroused more often and spent more time breastfeeding than solitary sleepers, yet the sleep-sharing mothers did not report awakening more frequently.

5. Sleep-sharing infants tended to sleep more often on their backs or sides and less often on their tummies, a factor that could itself lower the SIDS risk.

6. A lot of mutual touch and interaction occurs between the sleep-sharers. What one does affects the nighttime behavior of the other.

I will not pretend to be an expert in sleep disorders or anything of the sort. Those who are concerned about SIDS and other issues should research the evidence for themselves. I personally believe that a baby is less likely to succumb to SIDS if a parent is next to her. Having had one baby who used to like to turn blue during sleep, I know it made me feel more comfortable to be right with her all of the time. For the first few weeks of her life, I had to “nudge” her back into breathing while she was asleep. I don’t know what would have happened if I did not have her right next to me. We spent some time in the hospital and she was hooked up to all sorts of machines and monitors. Even with all of the technology around her, it still took me walking over to her bed and giving her a nudge when she turned blue.

After that experience, there was no way I was letting her sleep alone. I also believe that a mother just knows how to sleep with her child (unhindered, of course, by a night of heavy drinking). Even asleep, I seemed to “know” where my child was at all times.

But, one does have to be safe when you choose to sleep with a child. You must get rid of excess pillows, mattress pads and huge comforters. Don’t leave anything to chance.

Further, I believe that allowing a child to sleep with you when they are very young prevents a lot of problems later on. I know several parents who, when I would sit on the deck with Jack (my most recent baby) napping on me, would tell me how they let their babies cry themselves to sleep because they couldn’t “take” sleeping with them - or holding them for so long. “It only takes a few days,” they tell me. “It’s painful to hear at first, but after a while they stop or you’ll get used to the crying.”

I never get used to the crying.

I would also like to mention that at least three of the parents who have given me these lectures have children who are now in the nine and above age range and they will not go to sleep-over camps, sleep over at friends’ houses for an evening, go to Grandma’s for the weekend and spend most evenings laying in bed with mom and dad.

I have a feeling, although I’ve never verbalized this to them, that my kids know - somewhere down deep - that I will always be there. That I will not abandon them. I wonder if their kids are missing that feeling. I’ll bet, that somewhere down deep, they have a fear that their parents are not going to come and get them if they sleep somewhere else. Just a thought.

My kids, on the other hand, are all too happy to go to camp for a week, go to a friend’s house and leave me behind with a quick hug and a wave. It bums me out a little - but I know it’s for the best.

Resources for co-sleeping:

Mothering Magazine - www.mothering.com

Attachment Parenting International - www.attachmentparenting.com

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