June 18, 2019
We sleep next to our partners and spouses, because there is comfort in being next to your loved one, even in sleep. Why wouldn’t we want our children to feel that same comfort?
– Cassandra, Pennsylvania
• • •
Sometimes it is good to start off by describing what something is not. So, here is what this article is not.
This article is not a treatise on the perils of co-sleeping with infants/babies, which is something that absolutely can be done safely. It is not about how young children will never learn independence should they (gasp!!!) sleep by their parents through their early years. This article doesn’t assume children must sleep in their own rooms while adults secure a separate locked bedroom for “adult” things. I’m not writing about jealous husbands/partners nor am I shaming breastsleeping mamas.
There are enough articles out there on how to “sleep train” little ones so they learn to “self soothe.” Articles abound about trending baby monitors, optimal nursery décor, and how to create night time rituals substituting stuffed toy animals for human touch/comfort. Stereotypes of co-sleeping families also abound. Parents who co-sleep put their babies at undo risk for SIDS, right? Co-sleeping parents raise children that are clingily, overly attached, and spoiled, right? Co-sleeping parents never have sex, right?
It is true, co-sleeping is not for everyone. There are many families that stay connected, healthy, and joyfully retire each night to separate rooms for slumber. After all, it is what we (in the developed West) assume families do. Parents sleep in one room, children in others. But not everyone concurs or follows lock step with this expected cultural norm.
And it is a cultural norm, because in many parts of the world, even where upward mobility and spacious room-filled homes exist, families sleep together.
“As it turns out, Americans are in the minority. Around the world, sleeping together in marriage isn’t normal and sleeping away from one’s children is considered weird,” writes Hannah Chenoweth for Fatherly magazine. Chenoweth then goes on to outline how in 136 societies studied around the world, a full 50 percent of them lift up, as normative, the practice of a mother sleeping in one bed with her children while the father sleeps in another bed. The second most common variant is room sharing wherein parents sleep in one bed while the child sleeps in a separate bed, nearby.
Even a cursory study of human history dating back to our earliest roots reveals that breastfeeding mothers, in particular, have nearly always co-slept with their young. As Notre Dame University anthropology professor James McKenna writes: “Western societies must consider carefully how far and under what circumstances they want to push infants away from the loving and protective co-sleeping environment. Infants' nutritional, emotional and social needs as well as maternal responses to them have evolved in [a co-sleeping] environment for millennia.”
Primal, physiologically normal, and wise instinctive energies are hard to submerge despite a hyper-individualistic and increasingly anxious society. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even in the developed world of suburban tract housing and homes with 5+ rooms, parents find themselves blissfully wrapping arms around little ones, holding them close as they breathe, and falling into a most peaceful slumber – outside of occasional toddler-turns-sideways-in-bed equals kicks to the head.
There are co-sleeping families that sleep each night together in a singular family bed. Some co-sleeping parents set up bunk beds or place mattresses on the floor next to a main bed so everyone can sleep in one room, if not in one bed. Some put their little ones to sleep in their own abodes but make it clear that they are welcome into their room at all hours, should they need comfort or the soothing energy of parental presence. Most co-sleeping parents approach sleep in a fluid and open way wherein parents and children alike are welcome to sleep where it is most comfortable, where all kinds of sleep configurations are welcome in a judgment-free space of “musical beds.” In a culture that privileges the rational over the primal, accepts as normal the fragmentation of family ties while separating adult vs. child spaces – co-sleeping with one’s children is a radical act.
It is also an act resplendent with humor. Even for those who choose not to officially co-sleep. For example, Austrian writer/dad Stephen Cobey describes himself as someone who is “working at being a parent for 10 years and hopes to get the hang of it shortly.” Cobey acknowledges that he and his wife haven’t “missed out on the joys of sleeping with our children, of course, because pretty much as soon as they can walk, and operate a door handle (or pick a lock), they turn up in your bed on a pretty regular basis anyway.”
During my interviews for this article, one mother mused: “We never know how many kids we will wake up to, and sometimes my husband will switch to a kids’ bed because of all the elbows.” Another mother, describing how she is “not sure when her boy will ever move out. He is 9, nearly 10, now and still very comfortable,” highlights that “the plus side” is that “his actual bedroom makes a really good LEGO display case.”
One father, after describing who sleeps in his bed, admonishes me: “Don’t forget the cat, too!” Another father recalls telling his wife that they “should have just stayed in their two-bedroom house.” One mother shares that she and her husband “wonder every night why they don’t turn their child’s room into a yoga studio.”
This article openly and unabashedly celebrates the humor, wisdom, and warm heartedness of co-sleeping parents. I write to lift up co-sleeping success stories. I write to share the wisdom of fathers and mothers who co-sleep.
Below you will find their stories, in their own words:
As the kids grow, the benefits of co-sleeping continue. We get to spend time together in an intimate and comfortable setting for hours a day and the kids learn that dad’s presence can be just as comforting as mom’s. I get to be there for moments like when they realize tooth fairy arrives, the first morning stories of the dreams they woke up from. I get to help keep away the monsters in the closet and snuggle in between my favorite people in the world. As far as my relationship with my beautiful wife goes, we’ve never been closer. The fact that we don’t sleep next to one another every night means we put greater effort into communication, intimacy (and creativity) throughout the day.
– Steve, Canada
Co-sleeping for me is as natural as breathing. To feel two soft sweet little children one either side of me in gentle sleep is comforting and reassuring. I like to lay my hands on each of their chests for a moment and feel connected before I go to sleep. One day, this sweet time will pass and they will grow beyond the need for my physical closeness. And I imagine I will grow beyond the need for theirs. But for now this feels right and safe and happy and I’ll enjoy every minute!
– Anna, United Kingdom
I’m a father of two boys (now three and five) who we’ve had in our bed since birth. For us it was almost a no-brainer, as in it just seems so natural and normal to do. In the greater scheme of things those first few years are such a short period, such an important and precious period that you can never get back. I cannot think of a nicer way to wake up than to open my eyes and see one of my beautiful boys faces lying peacefully on the pillow next to me. That won’t last long and once it’s gone, it’ll never come back so I have zero regrets. I consider myself hugely privileged to have been able to experience it for these last few years.
– Linden, Australia
I love sharing our co-sleeping experience with anyone who asks me about it, and love hearing stories of how other parents are making it work in our culture of cribs and sleep training. I consider it a small act of resistance to share my co-sleeping experience whenever I hear another parent sharing their sleep-training method with a new mama – I want to let all new parents know that there is another way. I wouldn’t change a thing about our bedsharing and nighttime parenting journey.
– Meg, Canada
I started a graduate program in zoology when my oldest daughter was three months old. I was heavily influenced by my study and understanding about human evolution. Babies today need the same things babies have needed for millennia, which is proximity to a caregiver. I do not say this now to judge anyone else’s choices, and I know this can be a sensitive space. As a young mother, I knew that in many circles it was better just to say nothing rather than to mention co-sleeping or my lack of concern that my young infant wasn’t yet sleeping through the night. Or my desire to hold and carry them close to me as much as possible the first year. Or nursing (significantly, in some cases) beyond a year. All of it is behind me now and there are parts that I miss deeply but I have zero regrets about the approach I took with my little ones. So, if any of this resonates with young people who hope to be parents someday, I want to be a voice of support for them.
– Mindy, Utah
Co-sleeping with our daughter until she was four was one of the most special things we ever did. Providing a safe space for my daughter to sleep in and for her fears to be quelled when waking up in the middle of the night at such a young age reflected the type of parents we were choosing to be. When she moved to her big girl bed, I wept to myself not realizing that I had some grieving to do, moving her into a new space. Co-sleeping was and will likely be my favorite part of being a dad.
– Santry, Texas
In the most practical sense, if you co-sleep you should not drink, therefore two-and-a-half years ago, I stopped drinking. I have lost weight, I don't wake up feeling like crap and it means I don't model that behavior for my boy. Subjectively, now that I am used to him been there, I sleep much deeper and have no worries about him. He wakes up smiling to see me (us) and knows that we are here with him, for him. Knowing that we are doing something so important and beneficial for him has led us to a much deeper connection, and a deeper respect for each other. However, having an extra body in the bed has means that our sex life has had to take a back seat and has been 100% relegated to the sofa.
– Max, UK
We are busy professionals, working long hours and raising three littles without much family help. We’ve had so many different sleeping arrangements in the past 5 years and we try not to overthink it. We do what works. For us, it’s a way to connect with our rapidly growing kids, when we only see them a few hours a day during the week. When people find out we co-sleep, they assume we are “stuck” co-sleeping because we “failed” to teach our kids proper sleep hygiene. Not so! We never even tried to “get” our kids to sleep alone. Isn’t strange to live in a society where humans happily share their beds with their pets, without it being taboo, but sharing your bed with your OWN child is frowned upon?
– Frankie, Canada
When I was pregnant with my eldest, I swore we would never co-sleep. That’s why he had his own room I thought. I had NO idea. This sweet little baby who only liked to sleep cuddling his mama would set the framework for my parenting and many years of co-sleeping with him and his siblings. He was a smart one, even back then. He wanted to sleep close to his food supply and the only home and security that he knew. He taught me so much. With baby number two and three I didn’t even set up a nursery or buy a crib (in fact we sold the crib while pregnant with number two! Lol). We co-slept from night one. I was confident in my research and in how natural it felt to sleep with my babies right next to me. Breastsleeping was the way that our whole family got sleep and we never looked back. Now we have a family bed, anyone is welcome in if they need cuddles.
– Jaclyn, Arizona
I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s given us such an amazing opportunity for a sweet end-of-day stories, and early morning giggles. Legendary Snuggles. I’m right there when he’s been ill and to comfort when scared or bad dreams come. For anyone worrying that it could cause dependency issues. In his own time, our boy (now six-and-a-half) on his own accord, has made a slow and steady transition to his own room. Spending more and more time in there. So, it’s been a rewarding, and natural progression to his bedroom independence.
– Trevor, UK
I think every parent has to do what is best for their family because every child is different. What works for us may not work for someone else, and that’s OK. But I hope that by sharing our stories we can encourage other parents who feel like the expectation - put your baby in their own room in their own crib - doesn’t feel right. It is OK to practice safe co-sleeping. I am so grateful that I listened to my instincts, and with the encouragement of a couple friends who had experienced the same feelings, chose co-sleeping for our family. The bond we’ve developed as a family that continues to develop even in our sleep is something I truly cherish.
– Cassandra, Pennsylvania
It sure as hell beats getting out of bed in the middle of the night to tend to a crying kid. Also, the cuddles make it all worth it, they really are priceless… you won't get them forever.
– Steve, Australia
Currently, I sleep in one room with my 3, 7, and 5-year-old and my 11-and-a-half-year-old gets comfy at the bottom of the bed. One big puppy pile! Dad sleeps with our 9-year-old in a double bed bottom bunk a few feet away across the hall. This kiddo struggles with anxiety and co-sleeping has always helped him sleep well to help ease. Keep in mind, the top bunk has remained barely slept in since purchased 3 years ago! It is certainly tight quarters but it will always be the sweetest spot in my memories as a mother. The cadence of everyone’s breath occupying the same small space, little fingers and hands interlaced with siblings in dream-space, the healing energy of sleeping with those you love and who love you most after a difficult day. Of course, the little nurslings turning to mama in their sleep. It developed so organically for our family and I will be forever grateful to have remained open to our children’s inner voices and instincts.
– Sarah, Washington
I remember a couple weeks before my wedding (I lived with my parents up until then), I woke up one morning in my parents’ bed. I had fallen asleep watching a movie with them the night before. The reality hit me that that may never happen again. Their bed was always a welcome place and more comfy than mine for whatever reason—and I’d like to think that my two kids feel the same way today as I did then.
– Caitlin, Louisiana
“Safe space,” “comfy,” “welcome place,” “happy,” “natural,” “healing energy” – these are the words and phrases used by those parents to describe the experience of co-sleeping. And their descriptions make sense a great deal of sense from an evolutionary and biological point of view. As Dr. Tracy Cassels, founder of Evolutionary Parenting observes: “I think many people forget that we are a social species. We need each other to survive and this imperative is never more clear than at night. We wouldn't put our young babies and children in a tent by themselves in the wild, yet that is no different, from their perspective, from being in their own room. We evolved to sleep together. The bonus is that it also makes breastfeeding easier, brings us more cuddles, and allows for connection in this hectic culture we find ourselves in.”
On my side, as a co-sleeping mom, I know how difficult it is to maneuver around harsh judgments and expectations. I also know what a relief it is to find one’s proverbial tribe, to realize you aren’t alone in welcoming your 3- or 4- or 7-year-old to sleep beside you. Recollections of falling into dreamland next to my young son will be among the most precious memories I carry with me when I leave this world. The thoughtful, witty, wise, and warm-hearted reflections shared above speak for themselves.
To learn more about safe co-sleeping via the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, click here.
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