Co-sleeping vs. the Great Quest for Sleep

IMG_7527I’m lying in bed. It’s 3:30 am. My daughter is beside me. She is laying between us, her hands thrown up over her head. She is not touching either of us.

On the surface, it would seem that she could easily do this in her own room, in her own bed. Why are we still sharing our bed with her?

Fast forward to 4:45 am, and she stirs. Lifts her sleepy head up and turns towards me. Her hand reaches out and she runs it up inside my sleeve and it finds my shoulder. Instantly, she falls back into deep sleep.

She is has been like this as long as I can remember. I used to pay attention to how long she slept when I was next to her vs. getting up to do something, to “be productive.” Consistently, I noted that she would begin to rouse about an hour before she really wakes up. She will reach her little hand out, eyes still closed, fingers searching for warm, comforting skin. My shoulder, my arm, my stomach — it let her known that a loved one is near. And then she falls right back into sleep. If not me, then she does the same on my husband’s side of the bed. If she doesn’t find that, she will fully wake, get up, and go find one of us. It’s the difference of a whole extra hour. And it also happened at nap time, when she still took naps. That was at least 2 extra hours a day of sleep she would be missing. It was more when she napped twice a day.

How did I get here?

I didn’t intend to bed-share (bed-sharing is a subset of co-sleeping; co-sleeping simply means sharing a room). I was working full-time when I went on maternity leave and was returning to work after it was over.

I thought: “I need my sleep. As much as I can get.”

I thought: “She will need to sleep in her own room, which we will work towards, after we get through the initial hectic and sleepless newborn nights.”

I thought: “This will be better for all of us so we get more sleep.”

And then she arrived. She was born at 6:35 pm. And yet that very same night my instincts had her sleeping on my chest, skin-to-skin, and next to me to breastfeed. Barely hours old, I had already proven my former-self wrong. But I didn’t admit it; not yet. For the next 3 months, there was some combination of sidelying sleeping (a la Dr. James McKenna’s images of mothers and babies sleeping, though I was not yet familiar with his name or his work) and sleeping in the pack & play next to our bed.

By the time I went back to work or shortly thereafter, the pack & play wasn’t cutting it. She wanted and needed to sleep with us. And it seemed a lot more logical to snuggle a baby to sleep in minutes, rather than fight for hours to get her to sleep in a mesh box a few feet away. ESPECIALLY being back at work and needing sleep. ESPECIALLY since she still needed to eat throughout the night. ESPECIALLY because she was already telling us what she needed to feel safe enough to sleep.

And about being at work…

I missed her terribly. I was working longer days to work around some childcare coverage needs. So that meant Monday through Thursday I was getting home late, just in time to eat and go right to go to bed. I felt terribly guilty at missing all that time with her. But I got to make up some of that time I craved by snuggling with her during the overnight hours. It’s the only thing that made being away all day even remotely bearable to me.

But we also got more sleep, too. Studies show that breastfeeding, co-sleeping families (whether bed-sharing or simply room-sharing) get MORE sleep, not less. I learned this anecdotally before I ever saw study results that proved it. And it wasn’t just for the SAHM crowd, either. I learned there is definitely an advantage to co-sleeping for working parents, too — more bonding, less stress at bedtime, more sleep for everyone, no crackling baby monitor sounds to jolt me out of sleep.

No signs of a clingy child

So, she’s now 5. And she has more than enough independence when she’s awake. She knows what she wants, she advocates for herself, she goes off to preschool without so much as a glance backward at me (seriously — not even on her first day).

Those naysayers who said that kids raised with secure attachment — to trust in parents responding to them when they show upset — would be so coddled that they simply are unable to be independent don’t know what I know: that my daughter feels safe to be independent during the day because when she reaches out her hand at night to find me, I will be there.

I’m pretty sure she won’t still be in our bed by the time she starts dating

She won’t sleep with us forever. There are still plenty of days ahead of us of eyerolls, of sarcastic, exasperated expressions of “oh-kayyyy Mom,” and “Leave me alone! Don’t talk to me!” Of wanting to borrow the car and get away from us as fast as she can.

But right now, sleeping together is the great equalizer. It’s the reset button. It’s when she is at her most vulnerable and we get to protect that space for her, so that she can go out into the world and do her own work as a small, growing person, which is really hard work. It’s exhausting. And so is parenting. So let’s all get some more sleep! Don’t be afraid to co-sleep if you want to. Don’t feel guilty for wanting to get sleep and don’t let somebody shame you for not wanting to fight with your child every night to get them to fall asleep. Just make sure if you want to bed-share, you know how to do so safely.

It’s how we were designed to sleep: at first it was to keep our babies warm and protect the from the bears or mountain lions. Now we’re protecting them from our time away from them and a cultural norm that tells us the way to bolster a child’s self esteem is to leave them alone before they are emotionally ready to be left.

I actually do like it most of the time

And let’s not forget that it can also be enjoyable. I am someone who enjoys snuggling. I feel better and sleep when I sleep snuggled next to someone. So I give that to my daughter, too. I love her. I refused to be shamed into not showing her I love her in all the ways I know how.

It’s not right for everyone, but if you think it might be right for you, it probably is. And even if you don’t think it’s for you, you still might end up changing your mind.  And that’s ok.

More Resources on Co-Sleeping:

Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone

This Is Why Your Baby Doesn’t Sleep Through The Night

My Conversation With Co-Sleeping Expert James McKenna

About Becca Marshall

Becca is a postpartum doula and a CLC (Certified Lactation Counselor), offering in-home, customized support for babies and families. She also teaches Pump Prep, a class designed specifically for those who need to pump. She has been with Purple Lotus Doulas since 2013.

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