By Stephanie Nakhleh
Cosleeping was no fun at first. Instead of the nighttime bliss I'd been promised by attachment-parenting enthusiasts, my baby often acted like a nocturnal animal—prowling the sheets in the wee hours, howling for no clear reason. I felt cheated. Where was the state of harmony everyone had told me about: those sweetly synchronous sleep patterns, the magical ability to sleep through midnight nursings? Almost everyone else in the world did this, right? Why was it so hard?
In exasperation, I talked my reluctant husband into trying to train our baby to sleep through the night in her crib. After 20 minutes of listening to her escalating screams, he strode past me with a glare and rescued our sobbing, shaking baby from her wooden prison. This felt absolutely wrong to him, he said—didn't it to me? Looking at my baby, her little fists clutching my shirt as if for dear life, I had to admit it did. So we became a dedicated, if not ecstatic, cosleeping family.
There is no foolproof way to guarantee a good night's sleep when you have young children around—to be the parent of a young child is to be tired. Cosleeping is a skill that when mastered can minimize the inevitable exhaustion. As with any skill, it takes time and practice to get the hang of it, and talking to other masters in the field—that is, other parents with cosleeping experience—can give the tired parent creative ways around the common roadblocks to happy family bedding. I interviewed parents around the world to find out how they had overcome the nine most common obstacles.
Obstacle 1: Will I squash my baby? When Kris Placke and her husband, Ben, brought their infant son into bed with them, they were terrified of rolling over on top of him. "So I would push him up as far toward the top of the bed as possible, and we would scoot down," said Placke, who lives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. "That lasted about a week. Then I realized I was disturbing him more this way when he needed to nurse. I talked to my midwife, who had incredible advice. She said, ‘How often do you fall out of bed at night? You don't, because even when you're asleep, you know the edge is there. When you are asleep, you know the baby is there, too—it's much more intense than knowing the edge is there.' "
"One thing people are always afraid of is overlaying," said Meredith Small, professor of anthropology at Cornell University, author of Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, and herself a cosleeping mother. "Which is funny, because worldwide, babies sleep with an adult. If this was a problem, all those babies would be dead, and they're not." Small added that overlaying is extremely rare, and generally associated with certain risk factors, such as smoking, drinking, and drug use. (See sidebar, "Family Bed Safety," for more information.)
Obstacle 2: How do I keep up my love life? "This seems to be one of the biggest misconceptions about the family bed," said Rhonda Ploubis of Allen, Texas, who shares sleep with her husband and two-and-a-half-year-old son. "If you are cosleeping with a baby, how do you manage to have a fulfilling sex life? Well, it's a no-brainer, really: just take the sex out of the bedroom! Where is it written that sexual intimacy only comes at the end of the day, in the dark, in the master bedroom, on the bed?"
Lynne Hoskins, a mother of two from the state of Washington, said that from toddlerhood on, their family has used the "modified family bed," in which the children start in their own bed in the beginning of the night and join their parents later. "This, I think, helped us stay intimate with each other. We could talk, read, and cuddle with no kids in the bedroom—although we did have sex even when the baby was in the sidecar. We were quiet!"
Aletha Solter, a developmental psychologist and author of The Aware Baby, said that one important thing both partners must realize is that a woman's sex drive is often greatly reduced after having a baby—with or without cosleeping. "Life is not going to be the same after the baby is born," she said. "Many cultures have a postpartum sex taboo, which is in part to prevent another pregnancy, and also in part to protect the male ego. It can last between six months and two years, depending on the culture." Dr. Solter said that both partners have a responsibility: For the man, "don't force a woman to choose between the baby's needs and your own needs. If it comes down to that, the man needs to think about why he's so desperate to have his wife all to himself." Women also have to be careful—in their case, not to neglect their partners. "Mothers tend to put the couple's relationship on hold after having a baby, and that's a mistake, too," said Solter. Both partners need to work to schedule in regular couple time—which doesn't always have to include sex.
Obstacle 3: How do I handle the squirming? This issue was one many mothers found the most difficult, and certainly was my own biggest hurdle to overcome. (My husband can sleep through a riot.) For us, buying a king-size bed was key. One friend of mine had an even cleverer solution—she put a camping mattress under her side of the futon that she and her daughter slept on, which put them on different levels; that slight difference not only helped with the squirming but also alleviated the all-night nursing (see Obstacle 5).
Other families found other ways to increase the square footage of their sleeping space. One mother added a twin bed next to her queen-size bed; another moved a crib next to her bed and removed the side rail. "Instant relief," said Vickie Queen of Decatur, Georgia, who tried the crib option, also known as a sidecar. "I wish we'd done it a year earlier."
For some families, squirmy babies are simply part of the cosleeping territory. "We are still dealing with that," said Kris Placke. "Nigel is everywhere. It's something you just get used to! Nigel hates covers, and occasionally we wake to find feet in weird places. What I've come to realize—and this extends beyond sleep—is that parents really must constantly strive to raise their tolerance levels. It's true with anything. How long can you stand to hold your child while he turns the light switch off and on? It's a matter of accepting the child's behavior as age-appropriate and increasing your own tolerance level."
Obstacle 4: How do I keep my mobile baby from falling off the bed? An important thing for parents to know is that whether or not their baby is mobile, babies should never be left unattended in an adult bed. "Wherever possible, babies shouldn't sleep outside the supervision of adults," especially on adult beds with soft mattresses, said James J. McKenna, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Behavioral Studies of Mother-Infant Sleep. "When babies start moving around, that could get really dangerous." McKenna suggests that if the parents want some alone time for part of the night, they temporarily move the baby to a crib or bassinet (see sidebar, "Family Bed Safety").
Many parents pointed out that if the baby sleeps between the parents, the parents themselves act as a barrier against the baby rolling out of bed. Using a crib as a sidecar, or using a commercial sidecar, also can help keep baby safely in bed. For parents who are still concerned, one suggestion is to remove the box spring and frame from the family bed and put the mattress directly on the floor. "If I had it all to do over again," said Meredith Small, "that's what I'd do—put a king-size mattress on the floor." Obstacle 5: How do I cope with all-night nursing? James J. McKenna said his research indicates that breastfeeding doubles in frequency when parents share sleep with their children. As cumbersome as this can seem to some mothers, there may be a solid biological reason behind it. "Fifty percent of studies show that breastfeeding protects against SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome]," he said. "And it may not be so much whether you breastfeed as how much you breastfeed. Babies who wake up to nurse are not only getting more arousals, they're getting more milk, getting more antibodies." Those antibodies can protect against fast-acting bacteria and viruses that can attack the lungs, he added.
As protective as it can be, continuous night nursing can make it difficult for mothers to feel they are getting enough sleep. Jodie Lucci, a mother of two from Hooksett, New Hampshire, said that all-night nursing was one of the most annoying aspects of cosleeping—"but I can only imagine how much worse it would have been if I'd had to trudge out of bed to deal with it." Lucci's children were "reverse feeders," meaning they tended to get most of their nutrition at night. To cope, "I went to bed early, leaving baby with my husband, and on weekends I would let him take care of the children while I slept late." Lucci also worked to "tank them up" during the day with frequent feedings in dark, quiet rooms. She suggests "avoiding large amounts of solids until they are digesting them—check their diaper. They don't add much in the way of nutrients and will decrease your milk supply. Otherwise, night comes and the baby's belly no longer feels full; they are still hungry."
Obstacle 6: Will my baby ever leave the bed? Around the time I decided that weaning from the family bed was no more necessary than weaning from the family couch, my daughter, Julia, became interested in why all the other toddlers she knew were in their own beds, and why in all the books she read, the children were sleeping alone. "Where is the mommy?" she would ask. I would tell her matter-of-factly that the mommy was in her own bed and the child was in his own bed. She seemed very interested in this idea and began to pretend that the living-room couch was her own bed. We bought a bed for her, thinking it would be months, if not years, before she had any interest in it. To our shock, the day we set it up she insisted on sleeping there and hasn't slept in our bed since. She was 28 months old when she moved out of our bed, and the sense of sadness those first few nights without her in our bed was profound. "I have three children who ‘graduated' from the family bed; they are now 16, 13, and 5," said Christine Ewton of Jacksonville, Florida. "They each made the transition to their own bed around the same time they weaned, usually between two and four years. Of course the five year old will make his way to my bed in the morning when he wakes up, but can you blame him? As my children nursed less often, I would begin to talk about how they would soon get to sleep in the big boy/girl bed, so that by the time they weaned, it was more of a treat to get to sleep in their own bed."
In many cultures, James J. McKenna said, weaning from the family bed is not an abrupt shift from the parental bed to solitary sleep, but rather "a gradual movement of proximity from the parent" over time. Even in American culture, cosleeping is more fluid than many might believe. "A lot of parents don't believe they are active cosleepers because they start the baby in the crib but move the baby into their bed at 2 or 3 a.m.," he said. "The location of the child can change as the developmental needs of the child change. There is a great deal of fluidity. I call this the parent-infant sleep proximity continuum—it can change through the night, week, or year." Instead of focusing on cosleeping as a static arrangement that starts in infancy and suddenly ends sometime in toddlerhood, parents should remain flexible throughout childhood about where family members sleep. It's normal for children and parents to go back and forth between various sleeping places, McKenna said. "We should be educating parents to prepare for these different encounters."
Obstacle 7: What if my partner is opposed to cosleeping? "My husband, Jim, says he is not happy with the family bed," admits Cait Goodwin of Weymouth, Massachusetts. "But he puts up with it because he knows I like it, Sophie likes it, and because he doesn't have a better plan." Earlier on, Jim was very worried about squashing Sophie, and also had trouble sleeping because he was afraid any noise or movement would rouse the baby. But "our current situation with the twin bed next to our bed is a great improvement for him," says Goodwin. "His movements don't affect her, and there's a good chance he'll get the queen-size to himself for several hours!"
Sara Sengenberger, of Oxford, England, said she "cheated" and used the easy way to win over her reluctant husband: "I finally said, ‘OK, if it's that important to you, we can try putting the baby in a crib to see how well it works. Whenever she wakes at night to breastfeed, you can get her and bring her to me in bed. When she is finished, you can take her back to her crib. You can also get up to see if she's cold or if she needs to be changed. If she doesn't settle back to sleep at once, you can stand and rock her to sleep.' The idea of bedsharing suddenly seemed much more appealing to him!" Obstacle 8: How do I handle criticism from relatives? "We didn't necessarily want to hide it," said Kris Placke, but without a crib in the house, "it was really unhideable. The subject came up all the time. And people would word things oddly—one woman said, ‘That's fine for you, but I would worry about the baby.' As if I didn't worry about the baby! We would hear those comments a lot. It's not exactly like saying ‘To each his own'; it's more like saying, ‘You negligent mother,' but in the nicest of ways."
There are various ways of coping with critical friends and relatives, from grinning and bearing it to direct confrontation. "Education is one avenue," said Rhonda Ploubis. "I would suggest printing out information on the benefits of cosleeping and how cosleeping is the norm in most countries of the world, and encouraging them to read it. If that didn't stop the criticism, then I would be more direct and simply remind the offending relative that this was my family and my opportunity to parent in the way I felt was appropriate." Failing that, simply tell the person the subject is no longer open for discussion, she added. Finally, "the good-natured complaining I did [about the family bed] seemed to open the door for criticism of our sleeping arrangements," she said. "So I didn't volunteer information unless I was in like-minded company."
Sandra Profit, who shares sleep with her daughter, Catriona, and her husband, Troy, said that her relatives have either been supportive or quiet; it's her friends who have caused her some grief. "When they're prying into exactly when I'm going to ‘move that child into her own room,' I look at their children and see no reason to change," said Profit, who lives in Yellowknife, Canada. "In fact, I see plenty of evidence why [weaning from the family bed] will happen when Catriona decides for it to happen. I just remain true to my own convictions and don't explain myself anymore."
Obstacle 9: What if one child is still in bed with me when another baby comes along? Not only is this a logistics problem, it's a potential safety problem. "It is not safe for a toddler to be next to a baby, because toddlers don't have any sense of the dangers their bodies pose," said James J. McKenna. "The assumption should be made, in fact, that the toddler will overlay the baby." What can concerned parents do? McKenna suggested that if the toddler is ready for more separation, she could move to a mattress on the floor, next to the parents. "Or . . . the young baby . . . could be attached in a cosleeper," which would allow for closeness but provide a sleeping surface separate from the toddler's. "It depends on the circumstances, on the social desires of the parents, and the nature of the child. There are alternatives to a baby sleeping next to a toddler."
For Lynne Hoskins and her husband, transitioning their son, Alan, to a futon next to their bed was a perfect solution. "When Lisa was born, she came into the middle space, and Alan didn't feel transplanted." When Alan wanted a parental cuddle, he would climb up onto his father's side of the bed, away from the baby.
Other families found they could arrange family members so that the toddler and baby weren't next to each other. "We put the mattress on the floor, with my husband on the outside, our son, then myself, and the baby on the edge," which put an adult between the children, said Jodie Lucci. Clearly, there are more solutions to cosleeping hassles than just living with them—or giving up and putting a baby into her crib to cry it out. The creativity exhibited by these bedsharing families is impressive, and it shows what we can accomplish when we come out of the closet and start talking to each other—really talking—about what life in the family bed is like.
For me, this information came a little late for my first baby. I found a few ways to cope that first year, but mostly I simply struggled along, envious of my husband—he who had been in favor of the family bed all along, and who could sleep through the most aggressive baby thrashings and piercing cries. When my second baby was born, I was a more seasoned parent. My son was an even more challenging cosleeper, but I looked at my older child, who by then mostly slept on her own through the night, and I knew that this, too, would pass.
And so it has. My youngest is now four and is sleeping longer and longer through the night in his own bed before he comes creeping into ours. In the mornings, both my babies wake me up by crawling into bed with me, flopping over me, and seeing who can get closest to me. Then they take turns saying, "I love you," over and over, as I slowly rise from sleep. I can't think of a better way to wake up.
Small, Meredith. Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Solter, Aletha. The Aware Baby. Goleta, CA: Shining Star Press, 2001.
To order books featured in this article, go to ?www.mothering.com.
Stephanie Nakhleh is a writer and at-home mother who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband, Charlie, their daughter, Julia (7), and their son, Aidan (4).
Issue 132, September/October 2005