During a time when many of my memories are filtered through the hazy fog of sleepless nights with a small infant, the day I decided to become a co-sleeper is one that stands out with shameful clarity.
We had been trying to transition my six-month-old daughter from a pack ‘n play near our bed to the crib in her room for the past two months. It was not going well. She was getting more and more distressed at being left alone and was sleeping for shorter and shorter amounts of time on her own. Determined to do the healthy, pediatrician-recommended thing for my new baby, no matter how difficult, I stubbornly stuck with it, sure that to turn back then would only lose ground.
It got to the point that she was only sleeping 30 minutes at a time. All. Night. Long.
And I, as a newly promoted stay-at-home mom, felt it was my responsibility to take every night shift so that my husband could be rested for work the next day. After agonizing over various sleep solutions, being advised to let her cry it out by many mom acquaintances and learning about some concerning potential long term effects of sleep training, I realized I would never be willing to solve our sleep troubles through that avenue. Consequently, I was left feeling like a shell of a human.
I had turned into a walking mombie and I was barely able to function.
On the particular day in question, we had come off of yet another sleepless night and I had taken my daughter to visit my husband for lunch (a 40-mile round trip to and from downtown). I was praying for some rest, for both of us, during the afternoon naptime, but was thwarted in that as well. I was frustrated, overwrought, desperate and hopeless. I plunked my daughter down in her activity seat resting atop our kitchen table where she could see me and began washing the pile of pump parts in the sink. The label on the seat warned to never set the seat on an elevated surface. I knew this arrangement wasn’t going to be feasible much longer, but she wasn’t even mobile yet. It had never been a problem before.
Until the moment, while I all but nodded off at the sink standing completely upright with my back to her, when she managed to use her toes to scoot herself all the way to the edge of the table and over. The crash that broke my stupor and made me whirl around in a panic was followed by her scared wails as I worked furiously to free her from the seat now on its side on our hardwood floor, already matching her cries with my own. I called my husband, and hysterically and incoherently confessed the entire thing while examining her for signs of concussion. Thankfully, a small red patch on her forehead was all that turned up. We both eventually calmed down (she much faster than I), but until now I have been too ashamed to tell anyone else, even my own mother, about this terrible lapse in judgment that could have ended up much worse than it did.
That is the day that I decided to bring my daughter into our bed and to do whatever it took to get us both some sleep.
I realized that I was so exhausted during the days that it was literally making me unfit to care for my baby. I shudder to remember the long car ride I had taken her on earlier that day and am grateful I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. It took that lapse in judgment and her almost getting hurt for me to give in to what I had felt was right for us for some time.
During my pregnancy, I read all the literature on healthy and safe sleep practices. I was horrified that bumper pads were still a thing; I carefully selected an appropriately firm crib mattress and I vowed to never, under any circumstance, co-sleep with my baby. But then I had a baby. And she didn’t seem to want to follow any of the rules. She hated to be put down and wanted to be held at all times, sleeping and awake. The more I resisted what she kept telling me she needed, the worse her sleep got. When I finally relented and began seeking safe ways to co-sleep, I discovered research regarding the many benefits of co-sleeping, including actually reducing the risk of SIDS if practiced correctly. We found a blog detailing how to sidecar her crib to the edge of our bed.
My daughter gradually became less fearful and began sleeping for longer stretches again. I began to feel my sanity returning. I started sharing with a few close friends and family members that we were co-sleeping and found out it is much more common than I had previously believed. But everyone seemed to feel guilty for admitting that they did it and the amount of misinformation surrounding this sleep training alternative is vast. I have become a passionate advocate for family bed sharing, as it is sometimes known, and love to engage in thoughtful dialogue about the cultural, historical and scientific indicators behind this choice.
The decision to follow my instincts and to be flexible with my expectations was one of my first and most valuable lessons as a new mother.
I do believe there are babies out there who like to be put down in their cribs drowsy, but awake, and gently drop off to sleep. I have witnessed some of these magical, unicorn babies perform this trick while over at friends’ houses. Co-sleeping is not the preferred choice for everyone, but it certainly was the best, and ultimately safest, option for us. Now after four years of co-sleeping, first with my daughter and then my son, I can see it for the beautiful gift it has been to my family.