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The Little Sleep Secret Most Parents Don’t Discuss

Erin Zammett Ruddy

Last weekend my kids had a sleepover at my sister Melissa’s house. Apparently when they were going to sleep, Nora asked if she could sleep in Melissa’s bed with her. Then she shared this gem with everyone: “My mom let me sleep in her bed one time when I threw up on my pillow twice.” Then Alex added: “And I slept with my mom once after I ate a peanut and almost died.”

Melissa relayed the conversation to me in the morning and we laughed so hard because it’s so indicative of how she and I parent so differently, especially when it comes to sleep. As you can tell from the examples above, stuff had better really be real for someone other than Nick to spend the night in my bed. I don’t have many unbreakable rules but when it comes to sleep—and kids in my bed—I’m a stickler. And Nick is even more so, which helps. Meanwhile, my sister has had at least one kid in her bed pretty much every night for the last 10 years. Not on purpose. She doesn’t complain about it and she certainly doesn’t brag about it but every once in a while, she’ll let slip that she basically has a family bed.

And that wasn’t the plan.

I was having this conversation with some friends recently and it became clear to me that a lot of people wind up with kids in their beds and become co-sleepers by accident. Maybe a kid was sick or had a nightmare so the parents let them in their bed once, twice, three times and then—whoops!—couldn’t break the habit. Or were too tired or sleep deprived to care at that point. That always scared the crap out of me when my kids were young and so I never, ever let it happen.

Plus: Crib-Sleeping Vs. Co-Sleeping

I’m not talking about co-sleepers by choice. People who practice family bed do this on purpose and while I don’t think you could ever pay me enough money to do that willingly, I respect that everyone is different and I do not try to push my agenda on anyone else (and if someone else tries to push theirs on me, I zone out).

Even before we had kids, Nick and I knew what we wanted and didn’t want in terms of sleep and our children and so we did whatever was in our control (and I believe a lot of it is in the parents’ control) from the very beginning to get our kids sleeping on their own and for as long as possible. And past 7 a.m. And not in our beds. Ever. It wasn’t always easy but the pay off, for us, is huge. Huge as in we get to greet every day as well-rested humans. Which to me is paramount.

Don’t get me wrong, I will still comfort my kids in the middle of the night if they wake up. I will lie with them in their beds for a bit if need be. I have never let them cry it out. But I will not throw them in my own bed. It has literally happened only three times in my life as a mom. The two times above (Alex hadn’t eaten a peanut or almost died, but he did have a reaction to something that was likely contaminated with peanut and had to go to the hospital for epinephrine and it was scary enough that I wanted him close to me all night to watch) and during Superstorm Sandy, when we didn’t want the kids to get crushed by a falling tree (their rooms face the front of the house where we had some weak oaks). Other than those times, it honestly never comes up. They don’t ask because it’s never been an option. And they rarely wake up in the middle of the night anyway, which obviously helps us avoid the issue altogether.  

Nick is definitely bad sleep cop in our house and he has no problem jumping up to walk a kid back to his or her room after a middle-of-night pee, telling them to get back under the covers and quickly comforting them with his deep, direct voice. And that’s that. And because he’s willing to do the dirty work if it’s needed, it works really well for us. There was a time about a year ago when for a few weeks Nora would wake up at 5:45 and I’d try to go in and tell her to go back to bed (we also have a no getting out of bed before 7 a.m. rule) and I’d be stuck in there for 30 minutes. Nick would walk in for half a second and the job was done. Point is I’m lucky that Nick is there to cover me in the night when, I imagine, my need for sleep might obscure my view of the clearly posted rules.

Plus: Essay: How Co-Sleeping Affects Your Sex Life

I also suppose if my kids were walking into my room every night demanding to sleep with me or saying they’re scared or sobbing when I left their rooms it would be harder to not cave. But they’re not. They’re just as happy to be in their beds alone as I am to be in mine. I lie with them after books for a minute or two before I leave their rooms and every night Alex tells me I need to give him some space. Gladly, pal.

One of my friends, who also doesn’t allow her son to sleep in her bed, said she sometimes thinks of how lovely it would be to cuddle and be so close to them all night. And we all agreed but we also know that that just ain’t how it works. Cuddling is great. I love cuddling with my kids. The night Nora puked twice in her bed, Nick moved to Al’s bed (he has a queen) and I slept with Nora in our bed and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nice to be all cuddled up with her. She grabbed my hand in her sleep and held it up to her face and wouldn’t let me move an inch away from her all night and I could have died happy right there. But I’d also be lying if I said I got any real sleep that night.

And the night that Alex slept with me, forget about it. We have a king but he managed to make his way up into my grill every five seconds. And between his feet kicking me in the face and my checking his breathing and body for hives, I was basically up all night. And that just doesn’t work for me. I am a mom and a person who needs sleep. Solid, uninterrupted sleep without body parts touching me. That’s where our sleep rules stem from. And why we’ve never caved. Our need for sleep and space and time away from our beloved children.

I’m curious. Do your kids sleep in your bed? On purpose? Do you like it or do you wish it never started? If not, how have you enforced it? My sister Meghan is a new mom and definitely likes her sleep so any ideas are welcome. And If you’ve ever broken the kids-in-your-bed habit, how? I have another sister who could use some tips! Leave a comment here. And come visit me over at my new site, erinzammettruddy.com. Fun new posts going up this week! 

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