Thursday, 14 April 2011
A Bedtime Story
Four years ago, that girl was me. As previously discussed, I thought all babies behaved just like the ones on Eastenders, and trotted gaily off into the dark forest of parenting, confidently swinging my basket of breadcrumbs. Like every other woman, I was totally unprepared for what lay ahead. And I absolutely had no idea that my nights, my sleeping hours, that sacred time that I took completely for granted as one of life's essentials, would take perhaps the biggest hit of all.
There's absolutely no point writing a blog post about the horrors of sleep deprivation, as this is old news to haggard-faced mothers everywhere. But the story I do want to tell, is about how I survived it, and am still surviving it - by sleeping with my baby in my bed.
Despite my lack of preparation for parenting, I did start out with some knowledge of child development and the psychological theory of attachment, an intuitive and deep despisal of Gina Ford, and a resolution never ever to 'sleep train' by leaving my baby to cry. I knew I wanted to sleep with my baby near, or perhaps even in, my bed.
However, I found my judgement being seriously called into question by my Health Visitor, who for the purposes of this fairytale we shall imagine with a rather distinctive pointy black hat. She told me that it was incredibly dangerous to sleep with my baby in the bed, and even had a word to describe what their cause of death would be: "overlaying"
She got to me, I believed her, and as a consequence I spent several months of my life beyond exhaustion, from nights sat bolt upright and wide awake breastfeeding, and failed attempts to put my sleeping baby back down in her cot. Looking back on it, I have no idea why I thought that I might accidentally roll over in my sleep and crush my baby. After all, I had successfully managed to maintain enough sleeping spatial awareness not to fall out of bed for the past thirty years or so. Why would I suddenly and randomly roll in the opposite direction and squash flat my own little child?
Slowly, slowly, my fears subsided, and my tiredness grew, along with my realisation that things were not likely to improve on the sleep front any time soon. We began to experiment with bringing our baby in closer, and set up camp on a mattress on the floor. I found that breastfeeding lying down meant that I did not have to fully wake up every time my daughter did, and as a consequence I felt significantly less shocking the next day. And the older my daughter got, the more I began to enjoy really snuggling up to her, and the more I could tell that she loved sleeping that way too.
Once she was one we graduated to two rooms - hers with a double mattress on the floor, and one for the grown ups with a 'proper' bed. I would start the night with my partner and then go in and sleep on the floor with her from when she first woke up, usually in the small hours. This worked well for everyone, and just over a year later I was to go into labour on that floor mattress!
After our second daughter was born, things got even more crazy. Our eldest girl suddenly felt isolated with everyone else in a different room, and I could no longer go in with her for part of the night. So we made an even bigger floor nest, with two doubles pushed together, and I spent a rather hot and sweaty summer sandwiched between a newborn and a two year old, whilst my partner stretched out luxuriously on the other mattress. Since then we have played musical beds and explored all kinds of combinations. Currently I sleep with the youngest in a double bed, and the eldest shares a bunk bed with her dad in another room. To some people, this may all sound just too crazy. To others, I hope it helps to normalise the lunacy of their own night time household.
Co-sleeping hasn't solved all our parenting problems or made our life perfect. At times I have doubted our decisions and wished for a baby that slept seven til seven in a prettily decorated nursery. But for the most part, it has enabled us all to get a better nights sleep, and hopefully our children to feel as close and as nurtured by night as they do by day. Apart from temporarily falling under the spell of the Health Visitor, my only real regret is that we didn't take all the money we spent on useless new baby tat and buy a really enormous bed.
Like all bedtime stories, this one is about more than the sum of its parts. It's not just about co-sleeping. It's about having belief in your own wisdom no matter how lost you may feel in a disenchanted wood of personal anxieties, misguided advice, and cultural and familial 'shoulds'. If you find yourself at a parenting crossroads, for example, shall I take my baby into my bed? shall I stop breastfeeding? shall I send my reluctant child to pre-school?, it's worth asking yourself, who or what is guiding my decision making? Am I anxious to behave as my parents did, placate my health visitor, mimic my friends or follow a parenting 'expert'? Or can I make my decision freely, regardless of what outsiders to my family think or feel? I'm mostly talking to myself here, as it's taken me thirty six long years to become this disobedient, and I'm still working on it.
Whichever version of normality you decide to conform to, and however your family sleeps, I wish you sweet dreams, a way out of the woods, and a happy ever after.
For detailed information and advice about co-sleeping from the Mother-Baby Behavioural Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, click here.