“I didn’t get any sleep last night,” said Bill, another parent at my son’s school, when I dropped off Alex this morning. And Bill did look horrible– scraggly beard, dark circles under his eyes and crazy bed head–almost like he’d gone on a bender. “Maya (6) got up 2 times last night. I ended up sleeping in bed with Cameron (3), and my wife was in bed with Maya. I never know where I’ll end up during the night,” he said as he shuffled off in search of coffee. If this game of musical beds sounds familiar, there’s a reason—co-sleeping, or sleeping in bed with your kids—is on the rise, and has been increasing every year for the last decade or so.
I’ll never forget the woman who warned me against co-sleeping when I was pregnant with my son Alex. My friends and I had gone to get manicures on a “girls’ day out” (about the last manicure I’ve had in 6 years) and were discussing the pros and cons of letting your kids sleep with you. The woman doing my friend Caroline’s nails chimed in without looking up: “We let our kids sleep with us. Now my daughter is nine and we still can’t get her out of our bed.” My ever-practical friend Caroline, who didn’t think co-sleeping was right for her family, agreed: “I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve heard say the same thing.” Their words struck fear into my heart, and my husband Joe and I decided we would never, under any circumstances, let our baby sleep with us. We took the attitude of those old werewolf movies, where the man-who-will-be-a-howling-wolf-in-10-minutes implores, “No matter what you hear behind this door, don’t open it!”
Then we brought our baby home from the hospital. He started crying and Joe said, “It’s so cold. I really think he’s cold.” Alex cried some more. “Yeah, you’re right,” I said. “Maybe we could just snuggle with him a little.” Then, you guessed it: We opened the door and let the little pink werewolf in. Joe brought him into our bed (“Just for one night,” he said, and of course I agreed.) Well, from there we became one of those kinds of families—the kind that lets their kids sleep in bed with them. When I realized where we were headed (the manicurist’s warnings still ringing in my ears) I talked to our pediatrician. I found out that as long as we didn’t smoke, drink alcohol, take drugs and were not obese, the risks of hurting or smothering the baby were almost non-existent. Our doctor (and a host of articles I’ve read on the subject) say it’s perfectly fine to co-sleep, and in fact, families from many cultures around the world do so as a matter of course. Some studies even indicate that the rate of SIDS is lower with families who co-sleep. (If none of those other risk factors I mentioned before are present.) Armed with that information, we decided to give it a try.
And I have to say, and here’s the key, it’s worked out well for our family, for the most part. One thing we did was to put Alex in his own bed first, then when he’d get up in the middle of the night, we’d let him sleep with us. By the time he reached 4, he was usually spending the whole night in bed by himself, only occasionally getting up to jump in bed with us. He still gets up every morning to snuggle with us, and Joe and I both say that it’s one of the best parts of our day.
But I know there are families out there who are not as happy with the arrangement, for various good reasons—who are just hoping that one day, their child will not want to sleep in bed with them. Well, here’s the good news: That day will surely come. I’ve never heard of a teen-ager who wanted to sleep in bed with their parents, for example. In the mean time, there are some methods out there to help parents get their kids to sleep on their own. (I like some of the techniques the Super Nanny uses, and have also heard good things about the Penelope Leach books.)
What it comes down to, I think, is the question: IS this working for your family? If not, there are ways to fix it. (And trust me, I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do believe it’s possible.) As my wise friend Joan– who also happens to be a psychologist–says, “The great thing about parenting is that with kids, you can always go back and start doing something new that’s more effective, and it will work. Nothing is set in stone.” As your kids get older, you can talk to them about what you’ve decided, too—let them know that what you’ve been doing isn’t working any more, and that you’re trying something new as a family.
And my friend Caroline? When she and her husband had their third child, a girl, her husband Jim brought the baby into bed with them for about the first 6 months of their daughter’s life. “She was so little and cute,” said Caroline, helplessly. “And you know, I’m glad we did it.”
Now it’s your turn. What worked in your family? And have you had to change the sleeping situation around before finding a good solution for everyone?
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.