Last week, I revealed our big sleep secret: that our son sleeps in our bed. This week, let me share our story:
My Josiah was born in November of 2008. I began my parenting career with a “go-with-the -flow,” “baby-knows-best-what-he-needs,” “follow your instincts,” sort of mentality. It is important that you know, however, that this does not naturally flow from my personality: I am a planner who tends to live by a list and loves schedules and routines. I am also quite analytical and tend to over-analyze every decision I make. These qualities also lend themselves to anxiety and worrying. I think a huge factor in shaping me this sort of “go with the flow” mom despite what might be my natural tendency was participating in the miracle of pregnancy and child-birth. The fact that God grew a human being in my womb for nine months and then determined just the right time for such a perfect little creature to enter the world smacked me between the eyes with the truth that God can handle this much better than I ever could and I should just follow His lead. (Ever notice how run-on sentences are the only way to portray real thoughts and deep truths?) Anyway, I didn’t labor over parenting or pregnancy books: For the most part, it all just felt pretty natural.
One of my college psychology courses had also predisposed me for this sort of mommy mentality (My minor in college was psychology, esp. child developmental psychology). I remember well reading the results of one particular study: separate test groups of adults and children were fed a meal. Half of the group was given the low-fat/low-sugar/low-calorie versions of each part of the meal and the other half the regular version. All were given the option to get seconds or thirds if they were still hungry and their decisions were recorded. The children who were given the low-fat/low-sugar/low-calorie were far more likely to ask for additional servings than those who were given the regular versions, although this pattern was completely absent in the adult groups. It appeared that children naturally regulated their intake based on how much fat and calories they had consumed, whereas the adults ate more or less for other arbitrary reasons. (The test groups were large enough to account for other variables and the results were considered “significant”). This left an impression on me, and I had determined to allow my children to regulate their intake rather than enforcing any sort of clean plate rule that would hinder this natural, healthy inclination in hopes that it would carry on into adulthood. This was part of the reason I never considered enforcing a strict feeding schedule on my baby, but opted instead to feed “on demand.”
OK…so why do I keep blabbing on about parenting mentalities and feeding styles when this is supposed to be our sleep story? These background details are significant because of the way they so dramatically contrasted with my predisposed ideas about sleeping. When it came to my baby’s bedtime, I “knew” that sleepless nights were something that plagued most new parents and also that the ultimate goal was that my baby sleep through the night in his own crib.
So Josiah was born, and we set out to do things the way “everyone” sets out to do them. Josiah had a beautiful nursery and fancy crib set up waiting for him…but we also had our pack-and-play set up as a bassinet in our room because we were not yet confident in our abilities to wake up when he needed us if the crying came from too far away. We did not even consider having him sleep in our bed, because that was a dangerous thing only bad or lazy parents did. Right?
During the day, Josiah slept on my chest while I studied…
But night-time sleeping was a different story altogether. Because at night we were convinced he had to sleep in his bed, alone. We tried covering him loosely, and we tried swaddling him up. We tried swaddling with one arm in, we tried swaddling with both arms in, and we tried both out. We tried using more blankets and we tried using less. We tried using a sleep positioning wedge and we tried not using a sleep positioning wedge.
I rocked and rocked and sang and sang. And we both cried and cried.
And, out of exhaustion, we both often fell asleep in the rocking chair: Josiah cradled in the boppy with his head resting on my bare chest just as it was when he finished feeding…both peacefully unaware that time was progressing on until Josiah stirred for his next feeding.
On nights that I did manage to make it through bedtime and/or midnight feeding still somewhat conscious, I’d try to make “the transfer”…you know from warm in mommy’s arms to alone in the cold crib. Even when “the transfer” was successful, I honestly don’t think my Josiah ever made it longer than 30 minutes sleeping on his own in the crib or the bassinet. But he did look cute doing it!…
Anyway, we heeded the advice of the infamous “they” and let him cry, while I lied awake in my own bed (getting no sleep, mind you) crying along with him. Conventional wisdom (and all I feel I had ever heard) told me to let Josiah “cry it out” until he “learns” to put himself back to sleep. But the truth is, the thought of him crying himself to sleep in his cage crib broke my heart. It still does.
It is important to recognize at this juncture that there are different kinds of cries and they mean very different things. A baby speaks a language which moms and dads are given the ability to decipher. I think the kind of cry we are rightly taught to ignore is the defiant “I don’t want to go to sleep” cry. This makes sense…children can learn at an early age that mom and dad are boss and they are not going to win the bedtime battle. But even after these defiant cries escalate into delirious “I am so tired, I can’t think straight” cries, they are still easily distinguished from “I am in pain” cries. Remarkably, I think there is very little difference in an infant’s cries for physical pain and for emotional pain/terror…and it is that kind of cry that we often woke up to in the middle of the night…something that meant either I am absolutely terrified or I am in very real physical pain. I think Josiah has nightmares. You might also argue that it was gassiness causing extreme tummy pain. I am not really sure. But I was not going to ignore it!
No, he did not always wake up from nightmares or in pain…At least as often, the cry that woke us in the middle of the night was the sad cry. A whimper that meant “I am alone, and I want my mommy.” It was these cries that–although they tugged at my heartstrings and I practically had to pin myself down–I tried to ignore based on the infinite wisdom of “they.”
In those early days, the cry that woke us in the middle of the night was NEVER the defiant cry. Like I said, I can understand not responding to the defiant cry. I understand the value in not letting your children “rule the roost.” But my heart just wasn’t so convinced about the other ones…the cries that mean “I am in pain,” “I am scared,” or “I am sad.” What is my child learning has I let him “cry out” these emotions?
Long story short…we began to question “the norms” of crib sleeping:
Why did I think it was OK for Josiah to sleep on my chest during the day but not at night?
Why did I rely on Josiah to tell me when he was hungry or needed a new diaper…but I didn’t trust him to tell me what his sleep needs were?
What was the value in a child crying him or herself to sleep?
Was sleeping together in a bed really more dangerous than falling asleep together night after night in the rocking chair?
Why was I so convinced that Josiah needed to “learn” to sleep in his own bed?
And I realized the answers were simple:
- Because that is what the infamous “they” say.
- Because that is just how it is done (how everyone is doing it).
These silly answers would hold absolutely no sway over me in any other area of my life, and yet we were blinding following them when it came to the way we slept. In the end, these answers only brought up more questions…ones which were far more basic:
Who are “they” anyway?
What reasons do they have to tell me I should do things this way?
and Why do I care what everyone else is doing?
…These criterion have not guided any other decision in my life since high school…why was I letting them dictate my life now?
I tried to find books that didn’t advocate the “cry-it-out” method…but at first I couldn’t find any. So I did some google searching. I was not yet familiar with the terms “co-sleeping” or “family bed” (nor did I really know that that is what I was looking for) so it was difficult to really get anything other than “you can make it through” sort of encouragement about crying it out (or ferberizing)… but eventually I got somewhere…I don’t actually remember what sites I stumbled upon for sure…but I realized that there was this sort of “hippy” movement of people who brought their kids to bed with them. Hmmm.
I also began to realize that having kids sleep in their own beds is very much a Western culture thing. My husband and I spent 7-months living in Thailand shortly after we were married, and one of the biggest things that God etched into my heart during my time there is that the American way of doing things is not the only way of doing things. But although I have been convinced and convicted not to allow myself to be blindly defined only by my identity as an American, I had indeed been blind to the way that my preconceived notions about sleeping were a product of my Western culture. How could I not see?
Long story short…I did a lot of thinking and a lot of praying on those long sleepless nights. I bounced thoughts off of my husband…and forced him to think and pray and respond. (He is not so analytical as I am, so talking through things over and over and over again is something he does only out of his love for me).
And so we brought Josiah to bed with us. And pretty much immediately I found that I was waking up rested in the morning and we were all sleeping peacefully at night. It wasn’t that we didn’t still have night-time feedings…but I didn’t really have to wake up for them. I was surprised by how aware I was of my baby beside me, even while sleeping. I usually “stirred” (by which I mean I was sort of awake but not all the way) before he did at night. He didn’t have to cry out or wake me up, it was just a very natural sort of stirring in which he would indicate that it was time to eat and I would feed him. And in the process we would both move back into deeper stages of sleep together. By this time, I had read that a breastfeeding mother and her baby adjust to one another’s sleep cycles (which I’ll talk more about later). At this point, let me just say that I can definitely attest to this being my experience.
Yup, we decided to take the road less traveled: the one that is often considered to be a forbidden path in American perception. In a way, I could stop here and say the rest is history. But in another way, I know that this is only where our adventure began.
The question that greets new parents more than any other is probably some variation of “How is everyone sleeping?” Upon my response that we were all sleeping great, the follow-up question was some variation of: “So he’s already done with night-time feedings?” To which my only honest response is “Well, no….” And so I have been forced to share the secret of our little sleeping arrangement misdemeanor over and over and over again…sometimes to complete strangers who are only trying to initiate pleasant conversation in line at the grocery store. I have grown very familiar with what I have taken to be a disapproving head bob and grin, but which I am now willing to admit may only have been deciphered as such through the screen of my own insecurities on the whole issue. During those first sleepless months, and on and off since, I have worked through a number of questions and concerns: both my own and those voiced by others who carried the conversation farther than the head bob and grin. It is these five issues that I will be working through over the next several weeks: suffocation, SIDS, self-soothing, sleep-training, and sex.
You know, I am pretty sure that if we had an “easy sleeper” (not only have I heard tales that such children exist…I’ve actually met a few), we never would considered anything other than a bassinet and then crib for our baby. But that was not what God had in store for us. And I am glad. Every morning I wake up to the kisses, hugs, and cuddles from the sweet little boy who sleeps in my bed. And I wouldn’t change it for the world!
Over the next few weeks, I intend to go more into why we made the decision we did and how we have made it work for us. I’ll address what have been our biggest concerns and also those questions that have come up most frequently from others. As it turns out, these concerns can be represented as the 5 “S”s: suffocation, SIDS, self-soothing, sleep-training, and sex. So stay tuned 🙂
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