After the birth of our son, my husband and I learned that co-sleeping was not only safe and allowed everyone to get more sleep, but it also made us feel more connected.
At first, like many families, my husband and I did not consider co-sleeping an option during my first pregnancy. It seemed dangerous and at the least, lazy, so we planned not to make it a habit. Then my son was born.
The first night we brought him home, we placed him in the bassinet next to the bed between feedings. I noticed when he woke up, which was frequently as is normal for newborns, he seemed startled and instantly upset.
So I pulled him into the bed with me to nurse and he calmed down quickly. When he drifted back to sleep, I placed him back in the bassinet, but couldn’t resist the urge to keep my hand on his or my arm next to his body.
I just wanted to be close enough to touch him. During the next few days, I drifted off to sleep during nursing and it became easier to just keep him next to me all night, rather than taking him in and out of the bassinet.
During those first weeks and months, we woke frequently in the night to re-latch, re-situate and resettle, but the wakings were very brief — rarely more than two minutes. All three of us would cuddle together at night and in the mornings, stroking each other’s skin and admiring the features of whoever was still sleeping when we woke up.
Those moments were dreamy, and my husband and I began to cherish them. Over the years, our son has bounced in and out of our bed. There was a time he slept better in his room and a time when we added another baby to our bed — he felt left out and we wanted him to be included, so he was welcomed back into our room.
Now he and his little sister are used to snuggling up together at bedtime and they sleep so much better (and longer!) when they are laying next to each other. Each night when we lay down, we say prayers and exchange “I love yous” and hugs and kisses and I fall asleep with a full heart.
My husband and I love ending the day all together that way. Some may wonder if our marriage suffers because we don’t have hours alone in the evening. We still make time for each other and are thankfully on the same page about how we enjoy and celebrate the family we created together.
I know this is not the only arrangement that works for families. Some parents may not be able to get comfortable with a baby in the bed or a child in the room, and so co-sleeping (room sharing or bed sharing) may not be the best arrangement for every family.
But I think most Americans think co-sleeping is absurd for cultural reasons rather than considering how it may actually benefit their families. Our culture tends to focus on creating independence from infancy. But other cultures recognize what science confirms: babies and mothers were designed to touch each other during the night.
According to research, babies respond to the touch, movements and smell of mothers neurologically throughout the night. Their body temperature, stress level and breathing all stabilize when they lay next to their mothers. And mothers are physiologically motivated to touch and sleep close to their babies.
One factor may be that sleeping in close proximity promotes breastfeeding. Mothers who co-sleep (whether bed sharing or room sharing) are more likely to breastfeed longer, likely because of the exhausting routine of fully waking up to go to another room, stay awake through a feeding, get baby settled and fall back asleep.
The process is so much quicker when a baby is close by and mothers are more likely to persist. Breastfeeding not only provides sustenance and immunity boosters to help babies thrive, but it also gives mothers a frequent dose of oxytocin and prolactin, which helps mothers feel calm and less stressed.
In general, frequent nursing and co-sleeping both promote bonding. Dr. James McKenna, an infant sleep expert, says babies who lay next to their mothers during sleep are happier and in turn, mothers are happier.
This was certainly true in our case. My first baby night nursed through 18 months old and weaned around 33 months. My second baby night-weaned around 25 months and is still nursing at 27 months. We have not experienced hours of crying in the night, nor hours of trying to get a little one to lay down alone. Having milk available throughout the night hours is a comfort to us all.
Like other dads, my husband sees the benefits of nursing on demand and how bonded and rested I am. We’ve both noticed that when we lay next to them, they get sleepy, almost regardless of the time of day. Even during nap time, if I sleep next to them, they will sleep longer than if I get up and leave them in the bed.
Dr. Sears talks about how to co-sleep safely and how it actually can reduce the risk of SIDS. He also cites research that shows children who bed shared become independent sooner and have less anxiety. This may seem surprising, but it makes sense that children who feel bonded and secure in their relationship with the their parents gain confidence.
The time families can spend together is so limited, we see the night time hours as an opportunity to continue bonding rather than spending that time separately. When our baby wakes up looking for milk or a little one stirs from a bad dream, they are instantly met with pats and words of comfort or milk. They may sleep more soundly knowing they are close to their caregivers, and I sleep better knowing their needs are met.
I know the day is coming that it will make more sense for them to move on from bed sharing. In the meantime, we are soaking up these precious moments before, during and after sleep. We smell their heads and pull their warm bodies close. We stroke each other’s cheeks and pat each other’s backs.
And when my husband’s eye catches mine just before the last light goes out, we smile and both think, “These are the days.”