Sunday, May 15, 2005

A Good Night's Sleep

It’s late at night. The parent walks a lonely walk up and down the landing, soothing the baby to sleep. As the child drops off, drowsy but not fast asleep, the parent gently places the baby back in the cot. Immediate arched back and frantic screams… or fitful sleep for half an hour until sentry duty begins again… is it any surprise that after a month or six of this, many parents turn to some form of controlled crying, to try to get the baby to fall asleep in the cot so everyone can have a good night’s sleep?

Well, actually, there are kinder alternatives. Try what humans have done for millennia: tuck the baby into bed with you. Being next to his/her mother is the natural place to be – it makes everyone more relaxed and more likely to sleep well. There is no need to buy thermometers and worry about whether the baby is too hot or too cold – it’s easy to tell if the small person curled up next to you is comfortable. Instead of listening anxiously to the baby monitor to check the baby is breathing, you can just listen to them breathing right next to you. And if they stop breathing, you are right there ready to rouse them. In fact, scholars such as James McKenna are working on the hypothesis that co-sleeping (sharing a bed with a baby) may be a preventative of cot death.

A mother and baby sleeping together often synchronise their sleep patterns, leading to better rest for everybody. Breastfeeding mothers sleep more lightly than other people. An advantage of co-sleeping is that by the time the baby has stirred and given a whimper, the mother has probably got him/her latched onto the breast, meaning that (with luck) everyone can go back to sleep during – yes, during – night-time feeds. And smothering a baby, as long as you are not drunk, aware the baby is there, and sleeping on a suitable surface, is overwhelmingly unlikely. It is easy to lie in a way which makes rolling towards the baby impossible (lie on your side with a pillow between your knees and the baby in the crook of your lower arm: all attempts to roll forwards will be futile!).

People worry about whether a co-sleeping child will ever leave the family bed. In fact, left to themselves, co-sleeping children spend the night in their own bed as early as cot-raised children (just ask around – many children climb into the parental bed at night or in the early morning for a hug or because of a nightmare, or for company… it’s just that people don’t usually admit it). In fact, an “open bed” policy means that children can take independent sleeping at their own pace. They are much less likely to grow up with insomnia and behavioural problems.

What about relaxing in the evenings? I found that my children were usually happy to sleep in a ring sling when they were tiny, so we just took them out with us! As they got older, and less good at sleeping in restaurants, we made sure our social engagements were at lunchtimes. And there’s nothing like retiring to bed with a book and a baby at 8pm… sleeping when the baby does is a good way of combating the sleep deprivation of motherhood.

I was lucky. My children never screamed at night. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I walked at night to soothe a child, and every time the (tiny) baby was in clear colicky pain. Some babies do cry at night and can only be soothed by walking, especially colicky ones. But even then, co-sleeping has the advantage that when the baby finally falls asleep, everyone can carefully subside into bed with minimum disturbance for the baby. While a night of teething is never exactly a bed of roses for baby or parents, co-sleeping means that the mother can at least rest and doze whenever the baby is calm (spare room and ear plugs highly recommended for the father so that someone is fully rested in the morning). And at the happy end of the spectrum, when a baby wakes in his/her parents’ bed, (s)he does not have to cry to make them come and start the day. Instead, co-sleeping families wake up with smiles, cuddles and giggles. There is no better way to start the day!

Suggested reading: Deborah Jackson, Three in a Bed: The Benefits of Sharing Your Bed with your Baby (1999)
Advice on safe co-sleeping may be found here

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