I had just undergone an extremely rapid labor: 4 hours after the first contraction, I was holding my baby son, August, in my arms. My labor was so quick that I barely had time for an epidural, and would have declined had I known I was at ten centimeters.
At the time, we'd already had one child, Blaise, and we were practicing attachment parenting with him. Co-sleeping is a major tenet of attachment parenting, as is skin-to-skin contact just after birth, and I didn’t believe that newborns should be physically separated from their mothers. In fact, I didn’t think newborn babies should be deprived of skin-to-skin contact with their mothers for longer than it took for a diaper change.
So once we got back to the postpartum room, I side-eyed the incubator. My baby was supposed to sleep where? Oh, hell no.
For the first few hours after birth, I kept my son naked on my chest. But at some point, around 2 a.m., I had to go to sleep. And when I had to go to sleep, I had to put the baby somewhere. My husband Bear had fallen asleep a long time ago, and he was snoring upright in an uncomfortable green hospital chair. I had figured I would sleep with my baby. But I looked at the bed around me and, for the first time, had misgivings about it. I was scared to sleep with my baby that first night.
There were giant holes on either side of me, as well as holes and levers for jacking the bed up and down. I didn't want to take the chance that he’d roll off the bed, even though he was only a day old. Plus, the hospital had a strict no-co-sleeping policy, because of what some child development experts see as the risks of co-sleeping: sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and suffocation, along with me possibly rolling over on him.
As an attachment parent, I didn't buy that co-sleeping with my newborn was inherently dangerous. I'd been doing it with my first child since he was tiny, and I figured I knew how to co-sleep safely. (For what it's worth, while previous research has determined that there are risks associated with the practice, more recent findings from Professor James McKenna at the Notre Dame Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory has indicated that co-sleeping can actually help decrease the risk of SIDS.) Yet I still had reservations.
I normally slept with an itty-bitty baby’s head on my arm, his body turned toward me. Would I pull him too close? Would he fall asleep nursing and suffocate on my breasts?
To protect my baby from falling off the bed, I stuffed pillows on both sides. But there were still a number of other factors to address. I knew it was dangerous to co-sleep when the mother was under the influence of drugs, but did an epidural count? Did my painkillers? I normally slept with an itty-bitty baby’s head on my arm, his body turned toward me. Would I pull him too close? Would he fall asleep nursing and suffocate on my breasts?
I arranged myself as best as I could, my back against one end of the bed, my pillow turned vertical so I was only laying on a small sliver of it. I angled August into position. From this position, he seemed safe. The other end of the bed was far away, and he was turned toward me, anyway. I figured I’d be safe.
Then I thought of the nurse. We had been warned not to sleep in the bed with the baby. I could either put the baby in the isolette (the incubator), the nursery, or in my arms — but only if I was awake. When my postpartum nurse came in, would she yell at us? Would she harangue us for not following directions, and worst of all, would she tell me I was going to kill my baby? Could she call social services for us co-sleeping in the hospital?
That did it. I didn’t want to take the chance. I woke up my husband.
“Bear … Bear!” I said. “I need you to hold August so I can go to sleep.”
“Put him in — you know — the baby cage thingie,” he said sleepily.
“I don’t think that’s good for him,” I said. “He needs human contact. Otherwise he can’t regulate his heartbeat and he’ll get cold.”
“Elizabeth,” he said. “Thousands of babies sleep in thousands of isolettes every day and survive. So will August.”
“I need you to sleep with him,” I insisted.
So that’s how we ended up playing a sleep-deprived game of pass-the-baby all night. Every two hours, one of us would wake the other, and we’d take the small bundle that was our baby. I spent my time with him naked inside my tank top, or nursing him. Bear spent his holding him in the crook of his arm while he read stuff on the internet. By morning, we were exhausted and crabby. Yet August seemed alert and happy.
The nurse smiled at me and said she slept with all of her babies in the hospital, and that she was going to pretend she didn’t see me sleeping with mine.
When I gave birth the next time, I didn’t mess around. Baby #3, Sunny, got the full treatment: I stuffed pillows into the gaps in the bed, laid down topless with him, and fell asleep. I didn’t care what the nurse said, but I figured she wasn’t going to call social services; at worst, I thought I might get a lecture. Instead, she smiled at me and said she slept with all of her babies in the hospital, and that she was going to pretend she didn’t see me sleeping with mine.
I got much more sleep that time. So did my husband. We seemed so well-rested that we were able to be discharged only 10 hours after Sunny’s birth — all because I wasn’t scared to sleep in bed with him. I walked out of the hospital feeling much better than I felt with August. And when I got home, I did the same thing with both babies: I curled up in my bed, dropped the frame onto the floor, and went to sleep with them curled on my arm. They slept hard. And so did I.