Who are You in Bed With Anyway? The Virtues and Vices of Co-sleeping and Attachment Parenting.

By Donna Harel, PhD.

Recently, while my husband tried to wake me in a very special and intimate way, I was greeted with a sweet little hand across my chin, covering the left side of my mouth and my nose.  My three year old, brought down to my bedroom a few hours earlier, had rolled from my side of our queen sized bed, to the 20 percent of real estate on my husband’s side of the bed.

The kid was clearly asleep, but I nevertheless lifted the sheet between us as a visual buffer, should she suddenly awaken. I tried to relax and enjoy this morning treat.  My husband stopped and looked up at me.  “I can tell that you’re not exactly getting into this.”

“Well, look at me!” I whispered loudly.  He started to work his way back up towards my body.  “I didn’t say to stop!” Little laugh.

Focus, Donna, do you know how lucky you are that your partner lives to start your day on a high note? I tried to relax.  Our little scene continued for a few minutes until the hand moved down my chin and towards my neck.

“MMMM Mommy.”

My husband shot up,  letting out a quiet, exasperated groan

I whispered “Oh fuck!” And then more audibly, “Yes, sweetie?”

“I love you.”  She rolled away from me and began to snore.  We laughed quietly and began our day.  I vowed to write about the shitty aspects of the “family bed. But we had this romantis interruptus coming.  It’s been seventeen years in the making.

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When we brought our eldest home from the hospital, I was mired deep in the discourses and virtues of the “family bed.”  I had been conducting my dissertation research —an anthropological study of the homeschooling movement— among families who often extolled the virtues of co-sleeping.  Later, when I wrote up my ethnographic analysis of these folks, I connected their co-sleeping arrangements to some of their learning theory.  But at the time, I gobbled up all of the reasons that it made sense.

A few years later, as a childbirth instructor, I used my considerable influence among confused, worried expected parents —who, to be sure had a “natural” approach to birth and were therefore primed for my teaching —to extoll the virtues and normalize co-sleeping.  I saw co-sleeping as a part of a triad of what was then called “attachment” parenting.

“I’m approaching this as an anthropologist and mom.  Let’s see what you can do to put your baby’s needs: for connection and so forth, in concert with your own.”  I could offer every reason under the sun for all three aspects of Attachment Parenting.

Breastfeeding had become a no-brainer.  I didn’t need to educate most of these folks on the virtues of breastmilk, but I always made it a point to talk about the health benefits to mothers, which was largely absent from breastfeeding advocacy conversations.  After all, sometimes benefits to the baby were not entirely motivating when breastfeeding proved challenging.  And while basic breastfeeding information was also out in the ether, I wanted to highlight how co-sleeping and baby wearing could promote breastfeeding.  I always emphasized ways to not put what the baby needed in opposition to what parents, particularly mothers, needed.

Sitting around nursing a baby can be lovely and blissful (when things are going well) for a while, but it gets really old when you need to get up to pee or fix a sandwich or conduct other basic human functions.  And some babies could fall asleep while held, but would wake when you tried to put them down. I would detail the ways that babies that are held are calmer and better regulated, how baby-wearing promoted breastfeeding, and the convenience of not pitting the baby’s needs against the parent’s.

I wore my babies nearly around the clock.  I usually bristle at the word “instinctual” because it’s so loaded, but we developed an intimate, non-verbal and nearly automatic system for me to sense from their tiny movements and sighs, when to pull my breast up and out towards their little mouths, when they needed patting, when to shift position, etc.  They were generally calm, because as little primates, they had connection, food, warmth and often rocking.  And or the most part, regardless of all of the snuggliess and the ability to kiss the tops of their little heads, I could basically get with my life: move about, cook, not feel trapped on the sofa, help an older child with legos, do what I had to do.

But it’s easy to go overboard. My mom described these “primitive” practices with disdain, at times.  Once, when my Maya, my second child, was 6 months old, she reached out for the salad tongs that I had been using to mix marinara sauce into some linguine.    Somehow her finger nicked a hidden, sharp edge of the tongs and cut her ring finger.  That was not sauce, I broke my baby! As I  headed to my father in law’s house, my mother admonished me over the speaker phone, “Maybe you could put your appendages down sometimes instead of insisting on those third-world parenting practices.”

Despite feeling raw and rattled, I retreated into defensiveness “Maybe.  But your five year old granddaughter knows her way around a kitchen and feels secure and trusts me, so…so…so there!” I stammered.  Like many grandparents, my mom offered a mix of assurance that I was doing things the right way, combined with an uncanny ability to route out the insecurities.  In this case, she was probably right.  There is a time and a place to put babies down.  We don’t live in tight-knit communities, neither villages nor a busy apartment building, always teeming with kids and ready adults (or eight year olds, for that matter), to pass a baby off when we need a break, whether for safety or our own mental health.

I had a realization one day when I was trying to carry a load of laundry up the stairs that perhaps it would make sense to put the baby down first -that’s how accustomed to baby-wearing I had become.  So both my mom and I were on to something.  As I described in my dissertation, it’s tough to enact a “village epistemology” (or way of thinking about the world) in the suburbs.  Inevitably something gets taxed: either maternal sanity or some version of well-being for the kid.  At the same time, I think it never hurts to err on the is of connection and trust. For me, keeping my kids in a sling definitely promoted that.

Can you have too much attachment?  Most advocates of “attachment parenting” would probably say no.  I’m inclined to agree, but I also think that it’s really, really easy to develop boundary issues if you aren’t cautious.  Those same non-industrialized societies in which babies have a high degree of physical contact, tend to have a version of childhood that places greater demands on children (whether for childcare at an early age or with expectations for contributing work), than Western suburbanites.  So it made sense to me (and a lot of the homeschoolers in my study), that kids should be involved in some of the real work of participating in a household.

This, too has provided the double-edged sword in my own household. My kids developed early and enduring competencies in some areas, namely in the kitchen and in language and social development. but they sometimes express resentment at too much responsibility.  I’m beginning to suspect that kids may be resentful regardless of what we do.

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But what of the kid in the bed when I would have preferred some alone time with my husband?

Co-sleeping had been a part of our plan all along.   As an anthropologist, I studied ethnopediatrics: research and theory that considers the intersection of biology and culture with regard to childhood. I understood that solitary-sleep arrangements for babies and small children are relatively new in human history. Parents have slept apart from their babies only in the last few centuries and only in a few places. In many contemporary cultures, particularly those that aren’t western in their orientation, co-sleeping remains widespread.

We felt justified in bucking the conventions of mainstream (read “White,” “Middle Class,” ) American culture, which imbued childhood sleep arrangements with a core value of individualism and independence. My physician-husband and I armed ourselves with solid research on infant-sleep. We readied our responses to challenges from our parents, friends and pediatricians. Since then, we have  learned to not defend or over-explain our  parenting decisions to would-be critics.

For our first to kids, we got a “co-sleeper,” a side-car to our bed, where, just as the packaging suggested, the baby could stay in arms-reach for easy nursing and “safe” distance. We struggled with the set-up, but it looked lovely. Ultimately, it worked as an excellent changing table and place for my books. The baby slept in the crook of my arm.

With our second daughter,  born five years later, we set up another co-sleeper. With the trauma of having her baby sister in the NICU for awhile, our five-year old landed back in our bed. It felt wrong to kick her out of our room when the baby came home. So we made a tight, cozy foursome in our queen sized bed. Eventually, we got both girls into the futon in the second room. I nursed the baby to sleep as I read to her big sister.

Things got lower-maintenance for kid number three. Prior to her arrival, we considered what gear we needed. We didn’t bother with the co-sleeper. We already had a bed rail to go along my side of the bed, so we ordered a pool noodle. A pool noodle? Yes, they do a great job of filling the gap between a bed rail and the bed, so that an infant can’t roll underneath.

Since we had lots of hand-me-downs and gift clothes, our baby registry really consisted of diapers, wipes, bath stuff, clothes and, of course, the pool noodle. Through the work of Dr, Harvey Karp (of “The Happiest Baby on the Block” fame), we  we learned about the joys of swaddling, shushing and using a baby swing to keep her contentedly asleep for hours til we all went to sleep. We even got a cool device called a “baby shusher,” something of a white noise machine with a deliberate “shushing” sound that allegedly mimics the sounds of life in-utero.  So we evolved as parent-consumers.

Co-sleeping worked, by and large, for our family.  We believe we saved our kids and ourselves the pain involved in sleep training. This delayed the pain of getting them out of our bed and cost them, perhaps, their sense of mastering independent sleep before Kindergarten.

Of course the “pain” of sleep training is a matter of perspective.  We felt that a baby crying, alone in a crib was drawing up it’s only resource to alert the people around her that she needed something: contact, company, motion, people. And that teaching the child that their cries would not be answered would have a profound impact on their sense of trust in their own capacities and in their caregivers.  And we really wanted our kids to trust themselves and trust us.  While this approach felt second nature for us, ever the neurotic academic,  I found ample research to support this perspective.

That said, I have a neighbor, a psychologist, who interpreted her children’s cries in their cribs as “I’m so tired. I’m so tired.” From that perspective, she was helping her children build a skill of self-soothing and behind that, independence. I could hear that.

I didn’t buy it because I believed that independence, which, as a good American, I highly value, would emerge after dependent needs were sated. Some attachment parenting advocates postulated that needs satisfied at their appropriate time would help the kid move on, whereas needs not met at their appropriate time would warp and come out sideways later on. That’s where my head was, and remains, as I lay down with my each of my kids to cuddle them to sleep.

It’s what I reminded myself on the many nights during which we resented an elbow in our ear or a foot in our behinds.  Or the inconveniences of finding intimacy outside of our bed.   Or, at times, the quiet desperation hedged on the hope that if we could see them, and could see that they were asleep, all would be well.  We have often felt stupefied by how such a small person could take up over half (the middle half!) of the bed. But we made it work. For us.

During the time 12 years that I taught natural childbirth, I waxed and waned on how much I preached the gospel of attachment parenting.  I would present expectant parents with the research.  I did this in large part to help them make informed decisions, which  might not jive with their peers, parents or the conventional wisdom. In my best version of this presentation, I conveyed that where baby and children sleep are entirely the domain of parents. Not in-laws, not doctors, not me, your childbirth teacher. I still stand by that assertion.  I would also caution my students that they would likely encounter references to adult intimacy that included “going to another room.”  I always found this advice classist and unrealistic.  But again, each family could do what made sense to them for their specific circumstances.

I’ve loosened up on dogma over time. I’ve seen parents who sleep train and have great connections with their kids and I’ve met co-sleeping families who seem pretty disconnected.   Sleep arrangements, like all family arrangements, need to work for everyone, particularly the parent(s).

By age 2.5, we had transitioned Ronnie to a big kid bed in a room with big sister number two.  We eventually carved out a small room for her.  But almost every night, usually around dawn, Ronnie calls for Ella, who brings her to my bed downstairs.  For the longest time, we would nurse back to sleep.  These post-weaning days, it’s a bit more of a crap-shoot, but the kid usually does fall back to sleep after a few minutes.  Pretty deep sleep, actually.

The getting busy with a kid in the bed part? Every co-sleeping family I ever discussed the matter with say the it happens on occasion. Every anthropologist I ever conferred with indicted that parental intimacy —particularly quiet parental intimacy— in proximity of sleeping children is fairly widespread.  We felt that it bested the worry of a kid walking on us.  We learned to be discreet.

Our eldest maintains that once she heard us and was traumatized forever.  I regret that, although I like to point out that kids walk in on their parents all the time, regardless of where they start off their nights.  I also sometimes regret that I didn’t develop habits of routinization that had my kids go to bed and stay asleep at predictable hours.  Sometimes I regret that we co-slept.

But rarely.  Nothing comes close to feeling the rhythms of a peaceful baby or toddler asleep in your arms or against your belly.  My husband claims that  nothing comes close to waking in the middle of the night and seeing everyone asleep peacefully.  He points out that the few times we did try separate sleep with a monitor, he spent most of the night startled by every hiss and pop that would come through the airwaves.

But in the mean time, we have to laugh off the interrupted intimacy, the interrupted opportunity to meditate, write, finish a thought or complete a task.  But so many things as parents can strain our sense of humor.  There’s no helping it: we’re outnumbered and have been since the day we brought the first kid home.  So trying to find the funny in the absurdity helps.

We’re learning that no matter what the age of one’s kids, there is no perfect sleep.  No great sleep when they are infants.  No great sleep when they finally go off to their own beds.  No great sleep when they have a sleepover.  And certainly no good sleep while waiting up for a teenager to come through the door.  I can only imagine what it’s like for parents once their kids have left for good.  You learn to sleep, I’m sure. But no doubt, always with an ear or an eye half opened.  We only have one parent left, but my sandwich-generation friends say that there’s no good sleep when you have elderly and ailing parents. For now, we’ll have to hope for the funny and hope for the best.

Resources:

Anthropologist Meriden Small’s Our Babies Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent provides an outstanding and accessible treatment of parenting practices cross-culturally.

Anthropologist James McKenna is the world’s leading expert on parent-child sleep arrangements. In this article he makes a compelling, research-based, and nuanced case against the mainstream injunction that “Babies should never sleep with their parents.”

Accessible resources on Attachment:

Bill and Martha Sears have occupied the parenting world as the most accessible resource on attachment parenting. They have written several books (alas, thin on citations) on the subject and have an active web site at AskDrSears.com.

Ruth Newton, Ph.D., offers a synthetic guide to attachment in The Attachment Connection: Parent a Secure and Confident Child Using the Science of Attachment Theory.

See also medical reporter Katie Allison Granju’s research synthesis of attachment parenting, Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child.

Neuroscientist and attachment advocate Mayim Bialik has also weighed in with an accessible research and experience-based book on attachment parenting through and past infancy, entitled, Beyond the Sling.