I know, I know. Bed-sharing is dangerous, the pediatrician told me. I could roll over and crush my baby. She could fall out of bed. If she got used to sleeping in my arms or, worse, nursing all night, she might never sleep in her crib. All of this sounded very logical, and I decided that I was going to be a hardline crib mom well before I was even pregnant. Then I held my tiny daughter in my arms. And I never wanted to let her go. She felt the same, and screamed and screamed and screamed every time I tried to put her down. For months and months and months. This screaming struck me as perfectly reasonable. After all, she’d spent more time in my body than she’d spent outside of it. We were used to the beating of each other’s hearts. So a bed-sharing co-sleeping arrangement felt like a natural evolution, if not a well-deliberated decision. It felt right.
I understand that the safe-sleep guidelines we have all studied say that co-sleeping is encouraged, but bed-sharing certainly is not.
Those early days together were a slow cycle of eating and sleeping, with some crying and pooping to keep me on my toes. And most of that sleeping happened when my daughter was in my arms, or pressed against my chest in a baby carrier. Our bodies were connected all day long. It didn’t make any sense to push her away at night. And yes, I understand that the safe-sleep guidelines we have all studied say that co-sleeping is encouraged, but bed-sharing certainly is not. My solution, of sorts, was to just enter a higher-state of being where I, you know, barely slept and constantly monitored her breathing.
The worry with bed-sharing is that parents, or their bedding, will smother their child. In an October piece for USA Today, Harvey Karp cited CDC data that shows a four-fold increase in accidental suffocation and strangulation infant deaths since the 1990s, even as SIDS has decreased, largely because tired parents are bringing their babies to bed. The American Pediatric Academy revised its safe sleep guidelines a year ago to reflect bed-sharing behaviors. Co-author Lori Feldman told NPR, “We thought it was prudent to provide guidance on making the bed-sharing arrangement as safe as possible and provide guidance on what populations are most at risk when bed-sharing.”
I understood these safety guidelines intellectually, and I did give up sheets and a blanket for those first few months. But my fears about bed-sharing seemed to shrink every time I nestled my daughter’s tiny body against mine.
The new APA guidelines warn of the dangers of having any bedding near a baby, and of accidentally falling asleep in an armchair (the guidelines suggest it is safer to breastsleep in a bed).” So the advice is “do not bed-share, but if you must, make it as safe as you can.” I understood these safety guidelines intellectually, and I did give up sheets and a blanket for those first few months. But my fears about bed-sharing seemed to shrink every time I nestled my daughter’s tiny body against mine and felt her breath regulate and her cries subside.
I was not afraid of crushing her, because admittedly, I didn’t sleep very deeply. Worse than the every-two-hour feedings was the anxiety gnawing at my guts, promising me something was wrong. If my baby sighed, I was sitting straight up, cold-sweating. If she was quiet, I had my finger under her nose to make sure she was breathing. These anxieties were easier to control when my daughter was close to me. When I could feel her breath on my skin.
As for my husband, he was at the far end of the bed, wrapped up in his own blanket. It sounds terrible, I know. But even he agreed that isolation was preferable to listening to our little nugget scream.
We tried putting our daughter down in her bassinet a few times, because I did find the need for a life that extended beyond 7 p.m. at a certain point. But I couldn’t get past the idea that she was crying because she couldn’t understand why I’d left her alone in a dark, cold place. I couldn’t understand why I was doing it either. Bed-sharing wasn’t actually a problem for us; people just kept telling us it should be a problem.
Cribs are a fairly modern invention, and bed-sharing is the norm in many other cultures. I will give you the safety risks, but my daughter has blown past her first birthday — safety isn't much of an issue now. And you want to talk about a lack of marital intimacy in bed-sharing arrangements? Find me one new mom, just one, who is jonesin’ to get down and dirty.
As for the dangers, I would like to see our doctors explore the tradeoffs. Bed-sharing is associated with a higher risk, yes, but what about tired moms who fall asleep nursing in arm chairs — a more dangerous arrangement than sleeping on a sheetless bed, side by side. If the science is right, and babies need to sleep on their backs alone in a crib, then why do they sleep so poorly that way? Why are so many educated parents who take safety to the nth degree choosing to bed-share?
I had a long discussion about bed-sharing with my pediatrician at my daughter's one-year check up, and was somewhat surprised at her response. While my doctor made it clear that my daughter's age and overall strength were crucial factors in her assessment, beyond that, she was blasé about the whole thing. "Of course it's normal. Lots of moms do it. As long as you're comfortable with it, it's really no problem." Really?! I had waited an entire year to work up the nerve to admit that I bed-shared, was bracing myself for a scolding, and all she had to say was "it's normal?" That, and be prepared for a months-long battle when I was ready to break the habit. The dangers of bed-sharing are highest for babies under six months, so at one year, I guess I was well past that point.
The real relief was in being able to discuss our arrangement honestly. The safe sleep guidelines are notoriously difficult to follow — if they aren't working for families, maybe we need to address that. A study by the University of Virginia found that 42 percent of U.S. families bed-share at 2 weeks old — that is a lot, for what is considered a dangerous activity.
And this is not to say that you're callous if you don't bed-share or insane if you do. My daughter is 15 months-old, and our sleeping practice has gone through some dramatic shifts. We have bed-shared all night, then half the night. Then we started bed-sharing only in the early morning, as a preventative measure against pre-dawn waking. And there is nothing, and I mean nothing, more delicious than being woken up by the pressure of her tiny toes against my belly, or the all-encompassing light of her smile.
We have had moments of frustration, too, and plenty of them. As my daughter got older, she became a more active sleeper, and there have been nights when her kicking and her ferocious desire to nurse has kept both me and my husband tossing and turning. Our response was to “train” her to stay in her crib until 6 a.m., which resulted in relentless screaming, and one night, a nose-dive right out of her well-polished prison. All this led me back to the same question: why am I forcing my daughter out of my bed before she’s ready? Before I’m ready?
Learning how to sleep alone is a process, the same way we grieve, go through a break-up, and change is a process.
What has most helped me deal with all this sleep confusion is understanding that learning how to sleep alone is a process, the same way grieving or going through a break-up is a process. We spent nine months sharing a body. It’s going to take time for us to feel okay about letting go of each other. I am confident that my daughter will outgrow wanting to cuddle with me half the night, and we’ll find other ways of connecting. It’s already happening. And I am equally sure that I will look back on these months of bed-sharing with a good deal of yearning. I just hope that every now and again, no matter how old we get, we’ll find our way back to the beating of each other’s hearts.
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