Sharing our bed with baby

Mother and babyWhen our first child was born, I was not at all clear on the moral perplexities of bed sharing….. Certainly, my mother had not shared a bed with me as a baby. No one I knew growing up in New York in the 1960s ever talked about sharing a bed with their child. Babies had their crib down the hall, were bottle fed and probably kept to a 4-hour feeding schedule. Vaguely, I knew my cousin had mentioned how important it was to breastfeed her son, but by that time, I was a teenager and not all that interested. Our oldest son was born in a midwife center in Germany and as it turned out by the time our childbirth course and my pregnancy yoga course was over, I had become convinced our baby would be close to me after birth. But, not in our bed. Rather, in some sort of bed put together next to our bed… Somehow I remember thinking it vital to maintain some space between parents and baby.

 From ‘Real Men Sleep with Their Kids’ , Terry Bain, Mothering, Issue 132, September/October 2005

If you’re a man with a new baby who’s always telling people you’re jealous of the bond between mother and child, and if your child isn’t yet sleeping in your bed, I say to you: Bring your baby in, get to know him, sleep with him. If someday you want to share your child’s daydreams, take a step in the right direction by first sharing his night dreams. … After many months of my son sleeping with us, I am intimately familiar with his needs, both at night and during the day—even if I’m not always the one who can fulfill them. (I can’t, after all, nurse him or be his mother.) I feel as if I am in sync with him as I have been with no other human. I don’t think I even knew what it meant to be so familiar with another human. And I cannot explain to you how exhilarating that is. You have to experience it for yourself.

I think this had to do with the idea my husband and I should be having sex again as soon as possible. If it wasn’t that, then it was some assumption about the need not to ‘spoil’ the baby too much and make him or her ‘too dependent’. … As the weeks passed, our son eventually did share our bed most nights. It just became obvious how cozy it was, how much easier breastfeeding was…. I learned to relax and love the closeness. My husband had more trouble (see fathering), but even he, by the birth of our third child, did not even question that she would be with us in bed at least for the first months. The cultural expectation that ‘the child should finally be in its own bed’ dominated again when our daughter turned 2. …. I know other parents who have shared their (extra big) beds until the children are 8 or 9. I also know parents who never ever brought their children to their beds, at most allowing them to have a mattress next to the parents’ bed when they were sick or had bad dreams.

Co-sleeping and Bedsharing

by James J. McKenna Ph.D. and Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C., Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, University of Notre Dame

“One of the most important reasons why bedsharing occurs, and the reason why simple declarations against it will not eradicate it, is because sleeping next to one’s baby is biologically appropriate, unlike placing infants prone to sleep or putting an infant in a room to sleep by itself. This is particularly so when bedsharing is associated with breast feeding.” see

In debates on breastfeeding, birth, bedsharing, or later child development, the mainstream authority for the last decades has been the scientific community. Breastfeeding advocates, natural birth advocates and bedsharing advocates have often been relegated to the popular fringe. Anglo-American journalism has also been greatly shaped by the medical and biological sciences; less by the social sciences. It is helpful to realize that the scientific community is itself shaped by restrictions; the questions themselves are molded by the need to formulate specific hypotheses to obtain very specific funding.

There are two main lenses we should be aware of regarding public policy. First, such policy (such as in the bed-sharing medical association recommendation in the USA) reflects a national agency’s perceived responsibility for caring for the entire population, especially those who are unable to care for themselves.  The responsibility is to protect the children of parents who might not be capable of behaving responsibly, those parents who, just to name typical examples, are morbidly obese (thus are not agile), abuse drugs (thus sleep heavily and unnaturally) or are prone to fall asleep in inappropriate settings (such as on sofas with babies squished in the cushions). Those parents are the target audience, yet to reach them the national discussion needs to be clear and widespread. Unfortunately, many perfectly responsible and intelligent and healthy parents will succumb to their fears in the meantime.  I mean who wants to risk killing their child by accident? So, better err on the side of precaution, even if that hobbles the child-parent bonding. Second, when tragedies occur there is a wish to lash out and find someone responsible. Morally and legally. Occasionally, there are terrible fates of babies who do die of SIDS while sleeping. How awful if this were to happen while next to their parent.

from forum, thread on cross-cultural sleep patterns, July 2005.

“I can perhaps speak for Japan, for the people that I knew and have known there. Mothers in Japan generally stay at home. Babies and toddlers sleep with the mother, usually on a futon on the floor or sometimes on a frame. The mother conforms to the baby’s schedule. The babies in Japan are no more likely to sleep all night than an American baby. The mothers do get fatigued, just as any co-sleeping mother would, so they nap during the day with the baby. Sometimes a grandparent will live with or near the family. These will help out with watching the child during the day so the mother can nap. Fathers have told me that while the mother is co-sleeping with a nursing baby, they will move to another room, or at least into another futon. They will often co-sleep with the older children at this time.” 

We do know there are lots of issues involved: independence, sexuality, intimacy, sleep needs. These reflect not only personal preferences based on our own childhoods but also the cultural expectations influencing our first parenting years.