After a month beside my preemie in the NICU, I’d heard enough horror stories from nurses to second-guess any notion of co-sleeping. Stern warnings from my dad, a police officer for 40 years, sealed the deal for me. Then I had to convince my husband.
Actually, it wasn’t hard. I was engulfed in post-partum depression and struggling not to lose it completely amid our son’s heart monitor wails throughout the night.
My poor husband probably would have more quickly co-slept with an orangutan battling a skin rash than push his preferences on me, a new mother who was just learning about preemies, Down syndrome, PPD and, oh yeah, parenthood in general.
The truth is, I’d never heard anyone talk about “safer” co-sleeping practices (it’s important to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all warn against sharing a bed with an infant). In my mind, we had overcome enough risks without adding a tremendous tragedy born of a risk I could avoid.
Once home with us, Charlie slept in what was labeled a co-sleeper: A bassinette-like rectangle with a break-away side that could be rolled down so the bassinette sat flush with our bed. We tried that once, but my immediate vision of a prodigy 4-week-old (who arrived 7 weeks early) suddenly learning to roll over sent my husband unrolling and re-attaching.
Like I said, I was a mess.
Exhaustion breeds more fear
This article shares three moms’ opinions on sleeping in the same bed as their children but does not compare medical studies or data arguing for or against the safety of co-sleeping and bed-sharing. Talk to your pediatrician before making a decision about your child’s sleep safety.
We needed to wake him every three hours on-the-dot to feed him (after changing him, stroking his face with a cool, damp cloth, talking to him, cajoling him and doing everything short of (OK, fine, including) a Please Drink This Bottle dance. Our month in the NICU had ruined any chances of successfully nursing, so my husband was able to share the middle-of-the-night feedings. My confession: I was in such emotional turmoil, I usually lay awake through each and every feeding until finally I assumed all nighttime feedings. (Clearly, my brain had no clarity.)
The bottom line, for me, was that co-sleeping or bed-sharing or anything related to having our child sleep in our bed made me uneasy, and life was hard enough.
OK, we tried it… once
When Charlie was several months old, I gave in to my husband’s pleas to at least try having him sleep in our bed. The Husband purchased a “baby caddy” that looked like a cookie sheet with mesh sides swaddled in gender-neutral mint green. For one night, Charlie slept between us. He and The Husband both slept soundly. I was a wreck. I jumped at every odd breath. I peered over the mesh sides repeatedly, watching for signs of life. (A level of difficulty increased by my contact-less eyeballs.) Simply put, it wasn’t worth the risk. Life was hard enough.
Where are they now?
These days, Charlie puts up a fight every night before falling asleep, thanks to my inability to let him cry it out, ever. Our daughter, Mary Emma, waves happily as I nestle her into her crib and is practically snoring before I reach the door. Ah, parenthood.
Bed-sharing: Sarah’s story
Sarah and her husband never planned to share their bed with their newborn daughter, and decorated the nursery before her arrival. Their daughter made her debut at 39 weeks but never slept in the nursery or even the crib. “Not even once!” Sarah says. “I thought about how she’d been held perfectly by my body as she grew within me. It didn’t feel natural to be separated from her… “
If Sarah’s instinct was to hold her daughter near, the newborn’s reflux issues only reinforced those feelings. “Our family’s bed-sharing journey was born out of want and necessity,” Sarah explains. “The only way she’d sleep those first weeks was laying on my chest as I sat upright!”
“I cherished sharing those sweet nursing and cuddle times… I was aware of her breathing and felt her small movements right next to me, which calmed my new mama nerves. There was nothing better than waking up together in the morning and being greeted by her coos, smiles, hugs and, ‘Hi mama!’ as she got older.”
This routine continued until their son was born 3-1/2 years later. “We did not even take the crib out of storage or register for bedding this time,” Sarah exclaims. “I knew we’d lovingly share our bed with him and coincidentally our daughter was interested in a ‘big girl bed’ of her own.”
Sarah says as seasoned parents, they made a fairly seamless transition that continues today, nearly five years later.
Co-sleeping: Jenny’s story
“Did we plan to bed-share? … Sort of,” Jenny admits. Her sister co-slept and laid the foundation, but “It started, for me, the first night in the hospital,” Jenny describes. “After an exhausting, long labor and very intense delivery, my baby was swaddled all snug and cozy in an isolette next to my bed. And I thought, what in the heck is she doing way over there? She had been a part of me for 9 months, and now the three feet away felt like 3,000 miles. So I picked her up and laid her on my chest, and instantly slept.”
“One thing sort of led to another and we found ourselves so smitten with her — it’s so delicious to sleep with your baby — that in the bed she stayed.” Her daughter is 8 years old today.
Both mothers cite the simplicity of nursing while sharing a bed, and both reported feeling a better sense of restful sleep.
While I lost sleep even considering co-sleeping, Sarah says, “The benefits for our family have far outweighed any perceived risks.”
But she explains the precautions they took: “I breastfeed, we don’t do drugs or smoke and don’t drink in excess. As newborns, the children slept in a Snuggle Nest, then either in between my husband and I, between the wall and I or in between a pack ‘n’ play (with mesh sides) and I. We have a firm mattress and neither of them used pillows.”
Jenny shares: “We were never worried about her safety. When she started rolling around, we added her crib to our bed. We took off one side railing and butted her crib up to our bed, shoving towels in between the mattresses. This gave her space to roll around, and I still didn’t have to get up to nurse her in the middle of the night. We had this set up until she was about 3 [years old].”
Dealing with stigma
Backlash and outrage are common in the United States when one mentions co-sleeping, and both Sarah and Jenny have encountered raised eyebrows and judgment.
“I wish I had felt as proud of our decision to bed-share with our first child as I do now with our second,” Sarah said. “At the time, it was our family’s little secret. I became more confident as I found out that many friends were also bed-sharing. I educated myself about co-sleeping being the norm in countless other parts of the world.”
The bottom line for Sarah? “We all do the best we can for our children with the tools that we have. Parenting is the most amazing and exhausting ride of our lives. My hope is that our common bonds strengthen us while we are mutually respectful in learning about our differences.”
Jenny is firm: “Each family has its own way of doing things. I’ve learned to live and let live in that regard, unless there is something afoul.” From her perspective, “everyone’s got an opinion about what you should do… The judgment and comparisons are ridiculous and after a while I just stopped talking about it.”
What do the husbands think?
Co-sleeping in harmony clearly takes a harmonious marriage. (I don’t recall using anything close to “harmonious” after waking one morning to find toddler Charlie’s foot in my eye.)
“We both love having our babies right next to us all night so it has never been a source of contention in our marriage,” Sarah shares. “I didn’t know what we were doing had a name, only that our intuition was telling us it was the best choice for our family.”
Jenny answers the elephant-in-the-room question: Does co-sleeping with your children mean you never have sex with your husband again?
“We just had to get a little creative, which we were happy to do!”