Thursday, 14 April 2011

A Bedtime Story

Once upon a time, in a very far away land indeed, there was a blisteringly naive but well meaning girl who thought that babies slept through the night after the first few tricky weeks and that then you could get a sitter and go out dancing, whenever you pleased and without a second thought, just like you did in the good old days.

Four years ago, that girl was me.  As previously discussed, I thought all babies behaved just like the ones on Eastenders, and trotted gaily off into the dark forest of parenting, confidently swinging my basket of breadcrumbs.  Like every other woman, I was totally unprepared for what lay ahead.  And I absolutely had no idea that my nights, my sleeping hours, that sacred time that I took completely for granted as one of life's essentials, would take perhaps the biggest hit of all.

There's absolutely no point writing a blog post about the horrors of sleep deprivation, as this is old news to haggard-faced mothers everywhere.  But the story I do want to tell, is about how I survived it, and am still surviving it - by sleeping with my baby in my bed.

Despite my lack of preparation for parenting, I did start out with some knowledge of child development and the psychological theory of attachment, an intuitive and deep despisal of Gina Ford, and a resolution never ever to 'sleep train' by leaving my baby to cry.  I knew I wanted to sleep with my baby near, or perhaps even in, my bed.

However, I found my judgement being seriously called into question by my Health Visitor, who for the purposes of this fairytale we shall imagine with a rather distinctive pointy black hat.  She told me that it was incredibly dangerous to sleep with my baby in the bed, and even had a word to describe what their cause of death would be: "overlaying"

She got to me, I believed her, and as a consequence I spent several months of my life beyond exhaustion, from nights sat bolt upright and wide awake breastfeeding, and failed attempts to put my sleeping baby back down in her cot.  Looking back on it, I have no idea why I thought that I might accidentally roll over in my sleep and crush my baby.  After all, I had successfully managed to maintain enough sleeping spatial awareness not to fall out of bed for the past thirty years or so.  Why would I suddenly and randomly roll in the opposite direction and squash flat my own little child?

Slowly, slowly, my fears subsided, and my tiredness grew, along with my realisation that things were not likely to improve on the sleep front any time soon.  We began to experiment with bringing our baby in closer, and set up camp on a mattress on the floor.  I found that breastfeeding lying down meant that I did not have to fully wake up every time my daughter did, and as a consequence I felt significantly less shocking the next day.  And the older my daughter got, the more I began to enjoy really snuggling up to her, and the more I could tell that she loved sleeping that way too.

Once she was one we graduated to two rooms - hers with a double mattress on the floor, and one for the grown ups with a 'proper' bed.  I would start the night with my partner and then go in and sleep on the floor with her from when she first woke up, usually in the small hours.  This worked well for everyone, and just over a year later I was to go into labour on that floor mattress!

After our second daughter was born, things got even more crazy.  Our eldest girl suddenly felt isolated with everyone else in a different room, and I could no longer go in with her for part of the night.  So we made an even bigger floor nest, with two doubles pushed together, and I spent a rather hot and sweaty summer sandwiched between a newborn and a two year old, whilst my partner stretched out luxuriously on the other mattress.  Since then we have played musical beds and explored all kinds of combinations.  Currently I sleep with the youngest in a double bed, and the eldest shares a bunk bed with her dad in another room. To some people, this may all sound just too crazy. To others, I hope it helps to normalise the lunacy of their own night time household.

Co-sleeping hasn't solved all our parenting problems or made our life perfect.  At times I have doubted our decisions and wished for a baby that slept seven til seven in a prettily decorated nursery.  But for the most part, it has enabled us all to get a better nights sleep, and hopefully our children to feel as close and as nurtured by night as they do by day.  Apart from temporarily falling under the spell of the Health Visitor, my only real regret is that we didn't take all the money we spent on useless new baby tat and buy a really enormous bed.

Like all bedtime stories, this one is about more than the sum of its parts.  It's not just about co-sleeping.  It's about having belief in your own wisdom no matter how lost you may feel in a disenchanted wood of personal anxieties, misguided advice, and cultural and familial 'shoulds'.  If you find yourself at a parenting crossroads, for example, shall I take my baby into my bed? shall I stop breastfeeding? shall I send my reluctant child to pre-school?, it's worth asking yourself, who or what is guiding my decision making?  Am I anxious to behave as my parents did, placate my health visitor, mimic my friends or follow a parenting 'expert'?  Or can I make my decision freely, regardless of what outsiders to my family think or feel?  I'm mostly talking to myself here, as it's taken me thirty six long years to become this disobedient, and I'm still working on it.

Whichever version of normality you decide to conform to, and however your family sleeps, I wish you sweet dreams, a way out of the woods, and a happy ever after.

For detailed information and advice about co-sleeping from the Mother-Baby Behavioural Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, click here.



11 comments:

  1. We have a really enormous bed and invariably all 4 of us end up sleeping in it despite best efforts not to! Currently conducting a bribery campaign to keep the 4 yo in her bed all night. But I loved sleeping with them as babies. It was brilliant for breastfeeding and we all get some sleep. Not once did I ever come close to squashing either of them. Oh and I still secretlynlove that sleepy snuggling they do. You are so right about trusting your instincts.

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  2. we got the three year old a bunk bed and that worked, also i highly recommend glow in the dark stars! after waking up every hour for her first couple of years, she now sleeps through the night most nights! (but she does like to know her daddy is in the top bunk! ;-))
    thanks for reading xxx

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  3. I agree with the underlying theme here - trust your judgment. There are too much theories and opinions paraded as science. The perceived medical wisdom in the Seventies was to ensure babies sleep on their tummies - advice that is now credited with thousands of cot deaths.

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  4. A wise doula I know did a post about subtracting out our parenting instinct recently. Such a danger.
    I am the haggard face of five months in and STILL NO FRACKING SLEEP. I am on my knees, or rather wedged between a tyrannical 20 week old son and the duvet each night as he snuffles and screams for hours of it.

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  5. yes and interestingly mark i ended up 'letting' my second baby sleep on her tummy as this was the only place she seemed truly contented...as she was right next to me in the bed i did not feel worried about her...but as a parent you have to make these judgement calls...all very tricky and not helped sometimes by conflicting advice...
    hope you get some sleep soon L. at least with the second one you know that things WILL change...eventually!
    xxx

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  6. Brilliant reading! I found myself saying "me too!" a lot throughout this.. Lovely to know there are other Mummies as fond of co-sleeping as I am :)

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  7. thank you 'anon'so much...and may i add a link to a most amazing lecture
    http://www.vimeo.com/17853316
    if you have time it is fascinating to watch and highly supportive of co-sleeping xxx

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  8. I know this wont work for every child, as they are all different. With our daughter, who is now 21 months old, we started asking her (at about a year old) if she either wanted to snuggle with daddy, or go to bed (in her own room - she was in our room for the first six months, half co-slept with us, and half in her crib). She actually chooses now whether she wants to snuggle or just go straight to bed, and she knows the difference. She picks what she wants to do, and it makes sleep less hectic for her.

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  9. i totally agree 'anon', that we must all do what we feel is right for our particular child...i wanted to write this post to encourage people to do just that. as a first time mum i feel i was trying to conform to what i perceived to be the correct way of doing things, ie a baby sleeping thru the night in a cot...this made me struggle...i was also terrified of co-sleeping as i said, as i had been advised i could harm my baby...so, i hoped that in my post, by being honest, i might somehow liberate others who were in a similar position to me, and..i absolutely agree with you! and hope that my total approval of all 'child-centred' approaches came over in my post xxx

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  10. You do so much of what you are told with your first child. I had heard about co-sleeping but thought it was some odd hippy thing that only earth mothers did, but god I wish I had given it a go. It took us 2.5 long, painful years to get our son to sleep through and stay in bed. With my second baby I had no choice - she wouldn't sleep anywhere else! (Incidentally, she also insisted on sleeping on her tummy for the first month or two) I struggled with it for a while, even considered 'controlled crying' at one point to get her back into her cot, but really, there is no reason why she can't stay with me. There is plenty of room now hubby has been evicted, and she actually sleeps on her own on the other side of the bed. My main worry is and always has been duvet suffocation, which is why I don't cuddle up with her except when feeding – she sleeps in a sleeping bag and I snuggle under the duvet. My duvet is too important to me!

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  11. thanks for this great comment.
    and here's to not doing what you're told! x

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