Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Cosleeping Journey -- a lesson in trust

Yesterday I overheard an older woman ask a new mom if her seven week old baby was sleeping through the night yet.  She replied that he still woke up once, but it was easy on her because he was still in a cosleeper by their bed so she didn't have to get up.  I said that was the best place for him to be and cited the AAP recommendations.  She answered that she was hoping to move him to his own room sooner than recommended because she didn't want him getting too used to being close to her, but that every night at bedtime, "something" had prevented her from following through on this plan.  I encouraged her to trust her instincts.

I remember that new mom anxiety about sleep, the tension between my instincts and conventional wisdom.

When my daughter Cookie was newly born in the hospital, I wanted to hold her and keep her as close as possible all the time, asleep or awake.  But the nurses wrapped her up like a burrito and put her in a bassinet at my bedside.  Who was I going to trust?  My own instincts, or the hospital policy?

I felt insecure. It seemed natural and normal to trust the medical establishment.  But the drive to be with my daughter was so strong, I couldn't get enough of her.  I didn't want to be disconnected from her through sleep and spent hours upon hours watching my little baby or reaching out a hand to pat her through the tight swaddle.  There was one time that I succumbed to my instincts and fell asleep while nursing her in the hospital bed.  I felt so guilty when I woke up!

As Cookie grew from a newborn into an infant, I began doing research on infant sleep and learned about AP principles.  I wanted to incorporate them into our family, but in many ways I still listened with internalized messages that said I had to control her sleep habits and teach her to sleep without me.

For naps, I would often lay down to rest while nursing her and we often ended up sleeping together.  I felt guilty about it, but it worked and there was no one to answer to, so I kept it up.

At night was a different story.  My husband didn't want the baby in the bed and I didn't want to disturb his sleep when the baby woke up to feed, so I made sure I got up and went to the other room to nurse her in a rocking chair so that I could stay awake.

At night she slept, or rather was supposed to sleep, in a bassinet at my bedside.  She would fall asleep in my arms while nursing and then I had the difficult task of getting her to stay asleep while I put her in the bassinet or at least help her get back to sleep.

Though she loudly and clearly expressed her need and desire to sleep nestled in my arms, I tried everything I could to help her sleep without me and to simulate my touch.  I swaddled her tightly, I shushed her, I used white noise machines, I used the fake heartbeat and vibration built into the bassinet.

Most nights I ended up in an awkward position with one hand draped into the bassinet to comfort her.  I made up for the hours of sleep I missed in an effort to get her back to sleep the "right" way by taking naps with her during the day.

Then when she was 3.5 months old, I went back to work part-time.  Around the same time, we decided that it would be a good idea to move Cookie to a crib since she would soon grow out of the bassinet.

If getting her to sleep in the bassinet had been difficult, transferring her asleep to the crib was impossible.  She startled awake at the sensation of being lowered into the crib, she startled awake at the sensation of the difference in temperature, she startled awake at the sensation of the loss of contact with me.

I know now that she missed me and needed to make up for the lost time we had spent apart from each other while I was at work.

Again, I went to heroic lengths to help her sleep without me.  I awkwardly leaned over the crib so she could nurse to sleep and wouldn't have to be moved.  I sat by the crib and endlessly rubbed her back and shushed her and sang lullabies.

But since I was working, no longer could I afford to miss my own sleep or make up for lost sleep with a nap.  I didn't want to let my baby cry, but I was getting desperate and couldn't shake the anxiety that maybe the sleep trainers were right.  Maybe if I let her cry, maybe our sleep problems would be magically solved.

So we tried it and it failed spectacularly.  I'm thankful that Cookie is spirited and persistent.  She screamed relentlessly, escalating instead of calming down or giving up.  She needed me, and she wouldn't give up until I understood that and met her needs.

I would try to numb myself to her cries, but my gut knew the truth.  My baby needed me.  So I would go get her and nurse her to sleep, feeling guilty and like a failure.

Finally after a few nights of this, as I sat on the bed, exhausted, holding my baby who was desperately clinging to me even in sleep, I wondered what the point of it all was.

Why was I fighting so hard to get her to sleep in this crib when it would be so easy to slide down right there and go to sleep?  And so, desperate and exhausted, I finally gave in to my instincts.

And we got an amazing amount of restful sleep.  I went back to my research and reading about the benefits of cosleeping and how to do it safely.   My husband was still doubtful about wanting to share the bed with a baby, but he gave my need for sleep priority and eventually appreciated the lack of interruption to his own sleep.

I know now that Cookie was in pain from undiagnosed food sensitivities I regret every minute I let my baby scream for me.

We had a few hiccups when it was time to nightwean and when it was time to move to a toddler bed.  At both of those milestones, I tried to rush her ahead to more sleep independence than she was ready for and spent many nights of heroic lengths and tearful meltdowns before we discovered the new normal and what worked to get everyone the most sleep.

Yet, as my daughter has grown from an infant to a toddler to a preschooler, I have seen how her ability to fall asleep by herself has naturally grown incrementally with maturity.  At first she could only fall asleep if she was nursing.  After she was weaned, there was still a long period where only lying down with mommy would do.  Then she began to be able to fall asleep with snuggles from daddy.  Today, she prefers that one of us be at her bedside, but also can fall asleep alone with a stuffed animal to snuggle instead.  With this experience, I am more able to trust that in her own time she will be ready to sleep in her own bed for an entire night, and I have extended that same knowledge to how I treat her brother.

When my son Ziggy was newly born at home, I knew to trust that instinct and drive to be together as much as possible.  We shared a bed and spent hours upon hours skin to skin those first days, drinking each other in.  Even in sleep we were not disconnected because he was snuggled in the curve of my body, using my arm as a pillow, drinking colostrum from my breasts.

His bedtime routine has always been flexible.  We follow his cues for sleepiness and he typically falls asleep quickly and deeply.  Ziggy has always been more amenable than his sister to being put down after he's asleep, so I would put him in the bassinet sometimes.  As he got older, it became easier to nurse him to sleep in our bed, but .  When Ziggy is asleep, I roll away and surround him with a body pillow to prevent him from falling off the bed.  Or if I'm really tired, I sometimes just stay in bed with him and call it an early night.

When he outgrew the bassinet, we set up a portacrib in our room.  Although I had set it up mostly as a place to put him down safely and out of harms way, it's presence there triggered some automatic reactions in me based on those internalized sleep training messages.  For two nights in a row, I thought I'd try to get him to fall asleep in the crib instead without nursing to sleep.  Even though I never left his side or stopped trying to comfort him, it was miserable for both of us.  As soon as I realized what I was doing and why, I gave myself permission to go back to what worked.

So sometimes I nurse him to sleep on the bed, sometimes I nurse him to sleep while we watch TV and put him in the crib, and sometimes my husband snuggles and rocks Ziggy to sleep.  If he wakes during the transfer to the crib, we often can rub his back once or twice and he goes right back to sleep.  If he doesn't settle right away, we listen to that and pick him back up and take care of his needs.  And no matter where he starts the night, Ziggy is in bed with us by morning (as is his sister).

For me, cosleeping is natural and a way to express and live out my trust that my children are fearfully and wonderfully made and have an inner drive to develop, reach milestones and gain independence.  My job is to be available to guide and foster that development without trying to unduly control or rush it.


  1. We fell into co-sleeping by necessity. Everything I knew about sleep fell by the wayside after the birth of L who from day 1 was the definition of high needs. It was her Autism already peaking out. It took one night of her crying and for Bob and I to know that was wrong and a co-sleeping family was born.

    We slept varying weights depending on children, work schedules, are own sleep deprivation. I remember being very pregnant with Ian and having a co-sleeping 4 and 2 year old. I wandered where that baby was going to fit. However, without me doing anything, the 4 year old suddenly stopped. Her need to co-sleeping was over. It was such a natural transition with no crying on her part.

    Our now 5 year old no longer co-sleeps with us but instead spends every night now cuddling with her 7 year old sister. I guess they will stop one day but it's up to them. I know I don't want to sleep alone; my children are no differnt.

    My last baby is 3 and still co-sleeps. I keep telling myself to start slowly transitioning him but he is my last and we're in no real rush.

    I hope that as my children start to embark on there teenage years. They will still feel comfortable coming to my bed before bedtime to laugh, to share, to connect.

  2. Kristin, your story and philosophy about "going what gets everyone the most sleep" helped me gain confidence in my decision to cosleep.


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