As I type this, my infant daughter is happily asleep in the next room, by herself. However, at night, we sleep side-by-side, in the same bed. Her three-year-old sister sleeps on a crib mattress on the floor next to us. Gasp. Don't tell the sleep experts. We co-sleep, and have for years.
Considering how many people do the same, I'm not sure why it feels like such a dirty secret. I mean, it's pretty natural to keep your small children close at night. If we lived in the wild, it wouldn't make sense to leave our most vulnerable family members out of arm's reach. Now, I know what your thinking, suburban America isn't the wild, but the instinct to keep our babies close is still strong.
Even so, I find myself hesitant to admit where our daughters sleep when the pediatrician asks or I talk with moms I don't know well. As a society we seem to obsess over where babies sleep and most people want to crown the crib as the victor. To make things more complicated, a recent study found babies sleep better in their own rooms, alone, after four months. This goes against what the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended for years, that babies benefit from roomsharing for six to twelve months. The SIDS data still supports this, but babies who sleep alone sleep longer each night.
What reports on the study don't answer, however, is whether those babies are spending periods awake alone in their cribs, how this affects breastfeeding, or whether the roomsharing babies make up sleep with naps. They did find that by 2.5 years, all babies slept about the same amount. So big whoop. Babies who sleep in cribs sleep a little longer, but does that mean anything important?
To me it seems most important that everyone is sleeping, however this looks, crib or shared bed. Really, the location is more a matter of family preference and ease, than anything else. After all, co-sleeping is a common practice in much of the world. Still, there's a lot of pressure to put babies in cribs and that study left me questioning myself for the millionth time.
When I brought my first daughter home from the hospital, I tried my best to keep her in her own space. However, after months of falling asleep in my big chair as I nursed her in the middle of the night, my husband suggested a safer option would be to just bring her to bed. He was right. Instead of perilously holding her as I drifted off, she slept snugly between us, sans loose blankets and pillows, because of course we followed basic co-sleeping precautions.
At times I worried about how I would transition her out of our bed, but for the most part I just totally gave in. I came to cherish the closeness. For a few stretches, we tried unsuccessfully to move her into her own room, but she always slept more soundly with us nearby. It was either sleep in our bed and slumber through the night or go to her own room and have to deal with night wakings and an uptick in night terrors. More sleep for everyone was the obvious winner.
But that's what the sleep experts won't tell you. They always assume if you're sleeping together you aren't sleeping, but for our little family of three, together meant better sleep. Sure we could've powered through crying it out, which apparently has been shown to have no ill affects on children, but it just didn't feel right for us. At 19 months, we did our own version of sleep extinction when I night weaned my daughter, but even that took five weeks of serious nightly screaming with me by her side. Five weeks. The thought of surviving anything similar (or worse!) just so she could sleep in her own room wasn't appealing.
Then I got pregnant with her sister and wasn't sure how it would all work out if we continued to share a room. Even so, I was tired from working all day and didn't want to deal with it, so my oldest slept with us until the week I went into labor and couldn't stand sleeping near anyone. I moved to the guest bed and trusted we'd figure it out when there were four of us at home.
For the first couple weeks after my second was born, my husband helped my older daughter go to sleep each night in her own bed, but almost nightly she'd wake up screaming. Some nights it was legitimate night terrors where she wasn't conscious during her 30 minute exorcist-like fits, others she was just awake crying for mommy. It was heartbreaking, but I was exhausted caring for a newborn, so I let my husband handle it.
Ironically, I was busy trying to get her baby sister to sleep in her own space because I'd taken so much flack about sleeping with her for almost three years. But for the life of me, I couldn't get my youngest down on her own, either. I'd spend three hours repeatedly lulling her to sleep, setting her down, and then having to start all over again because she'd instantly awaken. On the off chance I was able to put her down, she'd only last 45 minutes before screaming uncontrollably. After hours each evening of playing this game, I'd give up exhausted and let her sleep next to me. Like magic she'd stay asleep for hours, sometimes as many as five, (which is pretty much the Holy Grail of newborn sleep goals).
At this point, I thought I was going to lose my mind. She was too little to cry it out and I'd tried every sleep environment available. Bassinet, Rock N Play, DockATot. All she wanted was to be close to me in my bed. Just like her sister. Desperate, I asked an online mom's group for advice and, resoundingly, I was told to just embrace it. Enjoy the cuddles, remember we'd only recently stopped sharing my body. Turns out co-sleeping wasn't nearly as rare as it seemed.
Encouraged by other moms, I decided what the heck. I'd survived (and even enjoyed) one round of co-sleeping, why not do it again. So we did and we both slept better. Nursing became easier because I didn't have to fully awaken to feed her, which incidentally falls in line with a study from University of Notre Dame on the benefits of bedsharing for breastfeeding mothers. Moreover, our bonding improved because we got the closeness we sometimes lacked during the day when I was busy chasing around her sister and she was relegated to the swing.
While it felt good to have that piece of the equation settled, I still didn't know what I was going to do with my older daughter. Not only was she awakening in distress on an almost nightly basis, but I also had the added challenge of getting both girls to bed, in separate rooms, when my husband worked late. After multiple disastrous evenings of everyone screaming, I gave in and welcomed her back into my room.
To my great surprise, she slept through the baby waking and stopped having the nightly fits. Actually, I'm not sure why I was so surprised, co-sleeping babies generally don't cry much at night because their needs are met quickly. So, from then on, my older daughter slept with us in our room again, on her own mattress, and the night terrors nearly disappeared.
The perfect solution? Maybe not. Sometimes I'm jealous when I hear friends talk about putting their kids down in a crib. We don't even own one. But I also know I'd miss my youngest if she weren't next to me. And, having done it once before, I realize time flies and soon enough she'll be ready for her own space, even if that just means a mattress on our bedroom floor.
Still, I've already begun conditioning my older daughter to be excited about sharing a bunk bed with her little sister when they're old enough. I trust we'll move them out together, when my youngest is about two. That's the beauty of co-sleeping with both, they can enjoy sharing space with each other when the time is right. Really, it's either hard now or it's hard later. I like to think later will be easier than I expect. Regardless, I know they won't still be sleeping with me when they leave for college. Or, at least that's what I've been promised by other co-sleeping families...