By Deborah Jackson
Mothering, Issue 98
My bed feels somewhat empty now. I lie scrunched up in one corner, like a kitten in an oversized basket, and I wonder how it came to this. My husband, Paul, is away again, working on the other side of the country, and my children are downstairs, asleep. There’s Frances, 12, sprawled easily across her loft bed (she’s going to need a bigger bed soon). Sharing her room is Alice, buried invisibly under the covers—she’s still small for her nine years. Then there’s Joseph, lying in his very own bedroom, his five-year-old limbs and mouth open to the world in a gesture of absolute surrender.
Joseph and Alice were born in this bed and here they slept, filling the space with fluttering movements, infant squeaks, and an angelic aroma. They suckled me to sleep every night, stimulating my sleep hormones as they fed from my breast. For a while after each weaning, I wondered how I would ever get to sleep without them by my side.
But it was Frances who started it all. She was the first one to hypnotize me in the night until I knew I just couldn’t put her down. Frances who first turned our mattress into a family bed, who showed me how to feed without the light on, and who wooed her father every morning with kisses and smiles. It was Frances who became the infant heroine of my book Three in a Bed.
Twelve years ago, people told me that I would regret the whole cosleeping thing. I couldn’t give them an adequate reply. All I knew was that I was enjoying my nighttime parenting, perhaps more than any other aspect of new motherhood. I found I was more relaxed at night than during the day. There were no time crunches, no ringing telephones, no urgent chores to complete. No health professionals or well-meaning relations to tell me I was doing something wrong. Just me and the baby and the night.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to smugly recite "I told you so," and to lecture another generation of new parents on the benefits of cosleeping. I have certainly been given the chance. Ten years after the first edition of Three in a Bed—Why You Should Sleep with Your Baby appeared in the UK, my publishers asked me to revise it. Here, you’d think, would be my moment of sweet victory. "Look!" I could say to all those detractors—the horrified journalists, the concerned aunts, and the skeptical child-care experts: "We did it and we loved it and we’ve moved on! The kids are great!" But I no longer feel the need to persuade everyone to my point of view. What we did worked for us, because it is what we wanted. That’s the key to success with any parenting theory: knead it and mold it until it works for you.
So instead on going off on a rant, the first thing I did was to delete the subtitle of the book. It was never meant to be a prescription, but the word "should" can sound terribly bossy when you’re a new parent and people are handing out advice like broth at a soup kitchen. I think if I had written a book called Why You Should Change Your Bank Account, I might have felt comfortable with such directness. But modern mothers feel guilty enough, without upstart authors telling them what to do. I’m far more interested in inspiring people to feel that they’re doing just fine than in thrusting another "should" onto them.
The second thing I did was to revisit the hundreds of letters I received from parents over the past ten years. My gentle and ever-supportive editor was surprised when I told him that they were nearly all positive. A certain amount of hate mail, he had warned me earlier, is the price most people pay for publishing their strong opinions. Over ten years, I have counted two letters of discontent—-one of which came from a hapless mom who thought the book was going to be about something else. The majority of the letters I receive are intimate and kind, food for the soul. People send me their birth stories, share details of their sleeping arrangements and marital life, swap books and pictures and poems. They share their problems, but also their joy of parenting.
From my readers, I learned that there were many different ways to bedshare. Cosleeping began to look less like a formula and more like a process, an evolving, personal thing, adapted to the needs of each family. Some people happily play musical beds all night, swapping sleeping partners in the dark. Others sleep with baby in a bedside crib. Some fathers do most of the cosleeping, others move temporarily out of the family bed. Questions about where to put the baby down, adapting to waterbeds, and dealing with weaning have flown backwards and forwards across the continents. I have learned that, no matter what the Sleep Police might tell us to do, parents are determined to discover their own solutions-—and break lots of rules—-in order to achieve sleep and nighttime harmony.
I learned just how parents deal with big bed etiquette, discouraging their children from squirming or adopting the infamous "crucifix" position (where the child stretches out in the middle of the mattress, leaving parents clinging to the edge.)
I heard from mothers who wanted their own bedspace after six months, and from others who still snuggled up to a six year old. I read some wonderful strategies on weaning, including the delightful trick of tidying up around the bedroom where your child is learning to sleep alone. I discovered that cosleeping children evolve into amazingly secure individuals and that there are as many methods as there are children to challenge them. And all these wisdoms, gladly given to me over the years, I was able to share in my new book.
Cosleeping Gains Scientific Support
My next move was to talk to the scientists. Cosleeping research was in its infancy (much like Frances), when I first wrote Three in a Bed. My skill then was merely to gather together all the disparate strands of evidence that I found in the medical library. I read through papers by clinical researchers, anthropologists, psychologists, and childcare nurses. As a journalist, I was used to filtering out salient information from specialist texts, and considered that was all it required to bring my argument together. I began this work in a spirit of enthusiastic inquiry, and finished it as a convinced amateur.
Even ten years ago, it seemed to me that there were some demonstrably important lessons to be learned from the worldwide and ancient phenomenon of cosleeping. At that time, the only other authority who seemed to be echoing this view with any certainty was the medical anthropologist James McKenna. Critics of his work were many, and they were forceful.
Within a few years, eminent researchers from Bristol, England, had joined McKenna’s line of inquiry and were examining cosleeping mothers and babies in laboratory conditions. Suddenly, under the umbrella of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) research, funding was found for a variety of teams to investigate the sleeping environment of the human infant. Even initial results started showing the unexpected benefits of nighttime parenting, while a nationwide British study began offering important practical advice on the safest ways to cosleep.
Within four years, I’d already rewritten my "cot death" chapter in an attempt to keep up with the flood of information. I went to visit the Bristol sleep research team, whose intimate observations of mother and baby had disproved some prevalent myths about cosleeping. They found, for instance, that mothers responded more quickly to babies in the bed than to babies in a crib—-even when they are in the same room. They also found that babies were more likely to overheat in their own bed than when bedsharing, and that even with a feverish skin temperature, cosleeping babies demonstrated a cooler core body temperature than that of their lone-sleeping counterparts.
Today, ignorance about cosleeping has been replaced by an atmosphere of serious investigation. Doctors and scientists have been forced to reevaluate their prejudices against parents and babies who sleep together, and they ought—-at the very least—-to withhold their judgement. Hastily made judgements against cosleeping have been retracted, and they will, no doubt, be retracted again. Personal experience counts for more than any hypothesis, even one with the weight of evolution behind it. But instead of taking cribs and nurseries and nightmares and sleep-training and sleepless nights for granted, most people now acknowledge there is a choice. Cosleeping is the problem for some and the solution for others. It’s yet another lesson in cultural diversity and highlights the urgent need for tolerance between families who do things differently.
Kids Leave the Family Bed
So, I hear you ask, how are the children? They are fine, thank you. Predictably enough, sometime after weaning at the ages of two and three, they moved into their own bedrooms. They did this with muted enthusiasm and some encouragement from me, as I felt the time was right. They sleep securely, without comfort objects or resistance to dropping off. If Joe wakes in the night, he sleepily pads to the kitchen for a glass of water and then shuffles back to bed. In fact, if any of the children is disturbed, he or she falls easily back to sleep. They will sleep anywhere, and particularly love to do so away from home. Alice once had a week of nightmares, which she healed with her own dreamcatcher. Other than minor episodes like this, nighttime holds no terrors for them.
These are all aspects of normal sleep, to be observed in humans around the world-—except in those societies where cribs and sleep-training turn slumber into a battleground. I would not want you to think that my children are in any way exceptional. I simply don’t believe that their early years of skin-to-skin contact did them any harm. For their father and me, they did immeasurable good.
As I lie in my big bed, I remember the friend who made it. It’s wide and low, and takes a queen-size mattress, with two duvets and a large assortment of pillows. It’s got no fancy headboard and comes apart with the turn of a screwdriver. In fact, it’s just a bed—-a vast comfort zone which takes up most of the floor space in our attic bedroom. The more I think about it, my bed is not empty. It’s a marital rendezvous, a meeting place for Paul and me after one of his weeks away. It’s also a repository of memories, from my two homebirths, through the breastfeeding years, to the last days of weaning before the children moved on. And these days, the bed has taken on a new role. It’s a place for Frances to lounge and talk about her friends and her swiftly changing life. It’s a place for Alice to cuddle and pretend she’s a baby again, hiding under her mother’s duvet. And it’s a place for Joe to bounce, always on the move, demonstrating his physical prowess to a captive audience.
I think that’s why he’s such a good trampolinist. This bed is his spiritual home.
For More Information:
Jackson, Deborah. Three in a Bed—-The Benefits of Sharing Your Bed with Your Baby. New York: Bloomsbury, 1999.
Jackson, Deborah. With Child—-Wisdom and Traditions for Pregnancy, Birth and Motherhood. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.
Thevenin, Tine. The Family Bed. New Jersey: Avery Publishing Group, 1987.
Sears, William, MD, and Mary White. Nighttime Parenting—How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep. Schaumburg, IL: La Leche League International, 1999.
For additional information on the family bed, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering:
"Sleep with Me: A Trans-Cultural Look at the Power and Protection of Sharing a Bed," no. 91;
"Tossing and Turning Over ‘Crying It Out,’" no. 74;
"That Family Bed...Shhh!" no. 53;
"The Family Bed in India," no. 53;
"The Family Futon," no. 35;
"Getting Together," no. 28;
"More on the Family Bed," no. 22, and
"Hmong Family Bed," no. 20.
Journalist and writer Deborah Jackson has contributed to many newspapers and magazines in the UK including The Independent and The Guardian and Natural Parent. The first edition of Three in a Bed was published in 1989. Deborah lives in Bath with her husband, Paul, and their three children, Frances, Alice, and Joseph.