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Confessions Of A Co-Sleeping Mom

James Brandon

The Huffington Post ran a pediatrician’s co-sleeping “confession” over the weekend that strikes me as a breath of fresh, rational air on a topic that’s often complicated by everything from fear-mongering PSA’s to well-meaning, but ultimately meaningless (not to mention endless), advice from the ‘experts’ and beyond. Instead of offering more get-your-kids-to-sleep tips, Dr. Claire McCarthy describes her personal experience in parenting through the sleep-dep years, and her ‘confession’ echoes (finally!) the reality, and necessity, of adaptation that late-night parenting requires. McCarthy cops to breaking “all sorts of ‘sleep rules’ on a regular basis,” including returning to her kids’ rooms umpteen times to address their concerns or simply to hold them, and often curling up to sleep with them in their beds, or welcoming them into her own.

She writes, “I am not going to argue for a moment that uninterrupted sleep is a good thing. It's a great thing. I've probably whittled months if not years off my life, and lost a few brain cells, from all the interrupted sleep... But for us, at the time, uninterrupted sleep wasn't so important. Breastfeeding was important, and it's really hard to do that for any length of time without some co-sleeping. Just being close to the kids was important."

As a mother who’s still in the throes of sleep deprivation-- Kaspar cycles in and out of more or less sound sleep by the week- and who posted on Facebook (for the eyes of my inner circle, wherein I occasionally give in to complaint) just last week that I’m sure I’ve at this point sustained brain damage due as I come up on two years of this scene, I drew deep encouragement from reading a pediatrician’s post-sleep-dep perspective on this very point. Sure, I know sleep helps your cells to heal and your mind to function, but I have both consciously and unconsciously prioritized parenting-- present, conscious, actively-responsive parenting-- over clocking in on a normal person’s allotment of nightly Z’s. There are reasons for this: a) we’ve attempted many a methodology to getting Kaspar to sleep through the night, but ultimately Kaspar has led us to a system that works for him, and for us (for now), and b) I trust blindly in the process and believe that my kid will ultimately transition to sleeping soundly-- and solo-- through the night. I mean, it’s not like he’ll head off to college still feeling the need to sleep next to his mom. This is my general outlook on most things developmental, and it flies in the face of the step-by-step systems of separation that so many of the ‘experts’ are fond of foisting on our kids.

Dr. McCarthy confirms that my trust in the process is not simply naïve... and trust me, I’ve wondered. She writes, “We were also lazy. It was just easier to get up and climb in bed with someone, or bring them into our bed, than work at getting them to go back to sleep by themselves. We knew they would eventually, and they did." (Phew!). She also confirms my thoughts on kids and college (in a nutshell: a lot of what’s in-between will work itself out when they’re ready) are sound, writing, "Personally, I think that as a culture we are a bit too hung up on getting our kids scheduled and independent practically from the time they are born. But I'm not out to convince anyone of that as a pediatrician.” Her job as a doctor is to make sure that kids are healthy and safe. She leaves parenting philosophy at the door, allowing each family to figure out, as she did, what works for them. "Honestly, there aren't all that many absolutes when it comes to raising kids,” she writes. “You must love them, really love them so they know it. You must do everything you can to keep them safe and healthy. You must keep their future in mind, because at some point they will move on and you want them to have a good and choice-filled life. But there are literally millions of ways to do these things -- billions, really. As many ways as there are families."

It’s wonderful to see an expert honoring this, and thereby encouraging natural parenting in the truest sense of the term; turning to experts can be helpful for picking up tips when you want to make a change, but trusting your instincts while taking the time to learn what works for your unique kids brings creativity, peace and empowerment into the picture for you to draw upon. (And by all means, if sleeping through the night in a crib works for your baby: more power to you)!

I of course want Kaspar to grow up confident and independent. I also want and need to get sleep every night, although, between staying up late to finish work projects and jumping back on mama-duty in the very early hours, I often don’t get very much. Our family’s ongoing challenge around sleep has been to find ways to meet everyone’s needs, and this has required compromises from all involved, since those needs continually change. After co-sleeping through babyhood (we had, but never used, a crib), Kaspar transitioned to his own (twin-sized) bed in our room for several months. He’d fall asleep in his bed, and then move to ours sometime in the night. After we moved into our new house this past fall, Kaspar’s bed went in his (very own) room, and we kept up the same general system: his bed for bedtime, our bed sometime later. Then, a few weeks ago, Aaron and I realized that we needed to make another change; Kaspar was taking up a lot of space in our bed, and he was awake for much of the night (just singing, bouncing... being awake). Thus, so were we. We were tired and frustrated by this, and decided we’d start transitioning him to sleeping in his own bed, alone, all night.

We successfully streamlined the bedtime routine, but, because Kaspar just sleeps better with one of us beside him, we haven’t actually stopped co-sleeping. We’re now taking turns spending the night in his bed with him. We’ll let him into ours after six in the morning—a ploy to get another hour of snoozing in. It’s not the transition we thought we were making, but it’s working, for now. We’re each getting more sleep than we were, so we’re not dysfunctional adults by day. Kaspar’s used to sleeping in his own bed now, too, and has been actually sleeping-- instead of singing-- for good, long stretches at night. Lastly, we each get alternating nights of personal space (not overrated) and cozy, close time dozing next to our kiddo. I sense, deep down, this time is fleeting. Yes, I want regular, eight-hour nights of sleep back, but I’m also savoring co-sleeping while it lasts. Someday, I’ll be well-rested. But when that day comes, I’m going to miss waking up with my nose in my son’s blonde mess of hair, or with his body bouncing on top of mine as he sings “You are my sunshiiiiiine, my only sunshiiiiiine...” at the break of dawn.

Do you co-sleep or sleep separately from your kids? Some combination? Do, or did, you ever night-nurse and end up just keeping the baby in the bed? What do you think of a pediatrician advocating for families to find their own workable sleeping arrangements?

Ps. These instructional co-sleeping diagrams hit the web like wildfire over the last few weeks. If you haven’t already seen them, get ready for a good (funny cuz it’s true) laugh! (We rock “H is for Hell” all the time). Then laugh at these, drawn by my talented friend Heather Marold Thomason, and proof that co-sleeping pets count, too.

PPS. Bonus round! Here’s what our beds looked like this morning... evidence of co-sleeping everywhere: