By Jeremy Adam Smith
Peggy O’Mara has another sharp editorial in the current issue of Mothering magazine, this time on New York’s public health campaign against what they call "co-sleeping"--though as Peggy points out, "co-sleeping" just means sleeping close to your babe, be it in bed or separate bassinet. New York state is really campaigning against bed sharing specifically. "Co-sleeping is risky," says the state of New York. "If an adult or child rolls over on a baby, the baby can be hurt or even suffocated. Sleeping with a child can be dangerous, especially if you drink, use drugs, are overweight, or sleep on a couch." Sounds fearful, but will the fear help anyone?
When Liko was born, I had never heard of the terms “cosleeping,” “bed sharing,” or “family bed,” and I certainly had no opinions about the subject. I assumed we would do what I imagined most parents do: move him into his own crib at around six weeks and into his own room at some reasonable point thereafter. Ha ha ha! Fate makes monkeys of us all.
It’s four years later, and Liko is still in bed with us. Am I happy with this situation? Not really. Given my druthers, he’d be sleeping in his own room by now. What happened? Basically, I am one vote of three. On this issue, I was outvoted. Liko breastfed for three years, and, as Peggy points out in her editorial, sharing a bed is often much easier on the sleep of breastfeeding mother and child than the alternatives.
More to the point, I think Liko and my wife just wanted to sleep together, period. They didn’t have a problem with it. (It's worth noting that my wife is partially Chinese-American, a culture in which bed sharing and co-sleeping are commonplace. We have friends of Chinese origin who shared their parents' beds until four, five, even six years old.)
I realize that these two things — bed sharing and breastfeeding until three years of age — put us outside of the mainstream of American parenting practices. As the New York campaign illustrates, some people consider our parenting to be substandard and even dangerous. And yet I confess, despite the fact that I’d prefer he now sleep on his own, that I don’t feel all that guilty or substandard. Sure, I’d like to regain certain freedoms related to sharing a bed with my wife alone, but the fact of the matter is that I love feeling him snuggle up to me at night and I love seeing his little face first thing in the morning.
We don't drink much or use drugs. We aren't overweight, though recently I've been pushing that one. We don't sleep on a couch. I certainly don’t think he’s been psychologically harmed by our sleeping and breastfeeding arrangements. Quite the opposite, actually.
Today Liko’s a bright, happy, sociable, healthy, and even-keeled little kid who has hit all the developmental milestones more or less on time. I’m not sure that our sleeping arrangement has brought him any “benefits,” but I can say that it is more consistent with his individual personality than sleeping apart would have been.
And so I’ve tried to accept our arrangement, though it does have drawbacks, most notably disruptions to my sleep and a lack of bedtime privacy. The family bed limits my freedom in other ways as well — for example, I don’t think I drank even one drop of alcohol while Liko was an infant, for fear of rolling over on him without knowing that I had done so. Now I’ll enjoy a glass of wine or a beer. On the rare occasions when I’ve actually gotten drunk (maybe 3 times in two years), I make sure to sober up before climbing into bed beside him, just as I would before driving a car, a process that can take hours. These are things I can live with. I don’t need to drink.
I know this issue provokes some strong feelings. I’ve heard people call co-sleeping a form of abuse — that's basically what New York is saying — and I’ve heard sleeping apart called a form of abuse. Certainly, Mothering magazine is not neutral in this battle; the editors are firmly (but sanely) pro-family bed during the breastfeeding years. Personally, I think people on both sides need to chill the hell out, a sentiment I think a majority of parents would agree with. And honestly, the New York campaign offends me. The press release says that 89 infants have died in their parents' beds since 2006...but how many have died outside of them? And what were the circumstances of those deaths? Was it bed-sharing that killed the baby...or was it the fact that Daddy came home wasted out of his mind?
Since most cultures outside of the U.S. bed-share and since co-sleeping has been the norm throughout human history, perhaps it would be more appropriate for New York to target those parents prone to risky behavior...and help them to cut it out, now that they have kids. This would address a lot of real problems, as opposed to fake ones that are really motivated by prejudice.
You'd figure we'd know this by now: Families are different; the people in them have different personalities, needs, and cultural backgrounds. Human beings are tough, adaptable monkeys who are naturally selected and/or designed to thrive in a range of environments and circumstances. It’s our glory as a species (and possibly the downfall of our planet, but that’s another issue), though that doesn't prevent certain groups from constantly trying to remake other people in their own image.
This doesn't mean anything goes--there are many culturally sanctioned practices that have proved harmful or obsolete. The "Back to Sleep" public health campaign cut the number of crib deaths significantly, and campaigns against domestic violence and certain kinds of corporal punishment have been very effective. But I don't think sharing a bed with your child falls into that category, not by a long shot. The family bed should be a source of love, not fear.
Author and journalist Jeremy Adam Smith tackles diapers, paternal leave, preschool, and more with the eye of an expert and the heart of a dad.