Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Confessions of a Closet Co-sleeper

Oh Hallelujah, how I enjoyed this little piece on co-sleeping with your baby from Tuesday's Science Times section. I admit that before having Maddie I was suspicious of co-sleeping, but that is because I am far too conventional. I haven't embraced a lot of the parenting techniques that have become vogue, inspired by anthropologists and attachment parents. This, by the way, is odd to my mother who is an expert on attachment theory and bought me Dr. Sears' book. I guess I just wanted to imagine that I could get my baby to sleep on her own in the crib and thereby give me back some of my own time and space. I couldn't have been more wrong.

In a paper last month in Infant and Child Development, Dr. Dyer proposed that co-sleeping families fall into three distinct categories. There are intentional co-sleepers — those who sleep with their children because they want to breast-feed for a long stretch and believe bed sharing is good for a child’s well-being and emotional development. Another group is reactive co-sleepers, those parents who don’t really want to sleep with their kids, but do so because they can’t get their children to sleep any other way or because financial hardship requires them to share a room with a child.

And then there is a third group that she tentatively calls circumstantial co-sleepers — parents who sleep with their children occasionally because of circumstances like sharing a bed on a family vacation, during a thunderstorm or because the child is sick.

Bed sharing is most likely of greatest concern among reactive co-sleepers, Dr. Dyer says, because the practice is essentially forced on parents. In those cases, the practice is likely to be stressful for both parent and child.

My opening bit should make it clear that I am not an intentional co-sleeper. But, I am happy to say that I am neither a reactive co-sleeper. I think I fit into the circumstantial co-sleeper slot, but I am not sure. Maybe there is a fourth category, intermittent co-sleeper or what-else-are-you-going-to-do-if-you-are-sleep-deprived co-sleeper?

Ask parents if they sleep with their kids, and most will say no. But there is evidence that the prevalence of bed sharing is far greater than reported. Many parents are “closet co-sleepers,” fearful of disapproval if anyone finds out, notes James J. McKenna, professor of anthropology and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.

“They’re tired of being censured or criticized,” Dr. McKenna said. “It’s not just that their babies are being judged negatively for not being a good baby compared to the baby who sleeps by himself, but they’re being judged badly for having these babies and being needy.”

In fact, research shows that parents often talk about their children’s sleep habits in terms of where the child starts off the night or where the child is supposed to sleep — not necessarily where the child usually ends up sleeping.

This is the part of the article that really resonated with me. Maddie starts off nice and snug in her crib these days. She even falls asleep in it without much incident (I am proud that we made it cozy). However, more nights than not she wakes up in the middle of the night and if we both fail to get her back to sleep, she ends up in the bed with us. Last night she woke up around 11:00pm and I was going on three days of little sleep, so I just scooped her up, put her in the bed, and started to nurse her to sleep. I was certain that I was becoming an insomniac again since I could not relax enough to sleep and within a minute of nursing her I was sleeping like a baby (what an odd expression that is to parents!)

I tend to downplay that Maddie ends up in the bed at some point in the night because you wouldn't believe how many people ask about sleep. Sometimes it is because they are about to have a baby, anxious that they will never sleep again, and therefore want some sign that it is possible to get your baby to sleep snugly. Other times it is the judgmental set. I used to just say up front that we end up with Maddie in the bed a lot because it is the only way we all get sleep. But, I quickly learned that if I said that to the wrong person I would get a sassy quip from him or her like: "well you'll be breastfeeding that baby in bed for 3 years." There are some people for whom that comment would be a delight. But not me--the very conventional girl who wanted to follow all the right rules for getting my baby to sleep without needing my boob.

Anyway, what I like about this article is that it makes plain that there are a lot of us closet co-sleepers. We hide this for a variety of reasons--in my case a combination of not wanting to appear a hypocrite, fearing judgmental sneers, and distinguishing myself from intentional co-sleepers.

I also like how this article points to a phenomenon that I have been trying to better articulate since becoming a parent. I guess it is the pervasive moralism directed at parents, and particularly mothers. (I say particularly mothers because almost every time Za is out with Maddie women and other by-standers are so impressed that he is alone with his daughter that he just gets showered with compliments). I was shocked by how shrill and tendentious most books on babies and sleep are. There are clearly drawn battle lines and no author seems capable of promoting his or her approach without making a strawperson out of the other approach. Moreover, all baby and sleep books need to paint the opposing camp as heretics; I am not kidding. The moralism in parenting manuals seems to resemble religious wars more than reasoned debate.

So, I will continue to be happy as a closeted circumstantial co-sleeper. While I foresee that Maddie will end up in the bed less and less, both Za and I are a little wistful that we won't have our little girl to cuddle up with each night. In fact, what probably drags this process out the most is our needs more than hers. She is showing all sorts of signs that she is happy in her crib and seeking independence from our bed. But, letting her go is hard . . .