Edgy Mama: The family bed

Sleep-sharing—it may not be for every family, and not even for every child, but when it works, it’s a good thing.

Sleep-sharing means that, at some point during the night at some time in your life, you, as a parent, sleep with or near your offspring. Some of us do it for a night here or there, or when a child is sick. Some of us do it for years.

Proponents of the family bed believe it promotes bonding and confidence. Both medical research and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that there are a number of benefits, including better breathing for infants.

I believe most of us do it because it calms and comforts our children, and everybody gets more sleep. My two primary goals in child-raising are: one, keeping the kids alive; and two, setting up a situation so that all family members get as much uninterrupted sleep as possible.

Until 150 years ago, the family bed was the norm. This practice is still common in many cultures around the world. Because families, some now and often in the past, can’t always afford extra beds. Plus, before the advent of central heating, sleeping together kept everyone warm. Back then families shared fleas; now we share antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

That said, every kid is unique, and my family ended up with one baby who was happy to sleep alone and one who desperately needed (and sometimes still needs) night-long snuggles.

My first baby, my girl, was an active sleeper. When we got home from the hospital, I put her in a side sleeper next to our bed, but she wiggled so much that I was convinced she’d wedge herself in the impossibly small divide between the bed and the side sleeper (despite the fact that she was a healthy 7-1/2 pound baby). So I moved her to a small crib, borrowed from my grandparents, at the foot of our bed. Still she wiggled and babbled and sighed—all night long. And while Enviro-spouse snored through it all, her new mama awoke at every peep. When I’d fall asleep with her next to me, she’d wake me with a kick, often to the stomach.

When she was 3 months old, we moved her into her own crib in her own room. And she’s never looked back. Not that she slept through the night by then. Far from it. Stumbling back and forth between the two rooms, sleep-deprived and confused, was never fun. But it wasn’t the worst situation either. Independent soul that she is, my girl, now 9, enjoys having her own personal sleeping space. She likes to sleep alone (well, with 40 stuffed animals and a Louisville Slugger — she’s not scared of monsters, she’s just a baseball fanatic). And she still kicks and talks and laughs out loud throughout the night.

The night my boy was born, I tucked him under my right arm in the cot-like hospital bed, and neither of us moved for several hours. He spent the next nine months sleeping against me. I called him “the heat-seeking missile.” If I moved away from him in the night, he’d wiggle over and press himself against me, long before he could crawl. Eventually, we moved him to a mattress on the floor, but he’d still get into the bed with us in the middle of the night. At 6, he now has his own room and his own bed, but he still crawls into bed with us two or three nights per week. He’s so big now that I often decamp to his bed for a blissful few hours of sleeping all alone.

While Enviro-spouse has grumped about the family bed frequently over the years (it’s now also a sleep spot for our Dorkie Poo mutt and one of our marmalade cats), he finally accepted the now occasional change in his sleeping partner. Because he recognizes that our boy is a physically needy being. If the kid doesn’t get enough snuggle time, he’s irritable and unhappy. If he’s had significant parental “touch” time, he’s relaxed and sweet. He’s always been easily calmed and comforted through physical contact.

We’ve accepted this need of his as a gift. Sometimes it’s difficult in our hustle-bustle world to stop and snuggle, to let him crawl into a lap and chatter for several minutes. But we’ll draw strength from moments like these when he’s 16 and his goal in life is still snuggling in bed, just not with his parents.

In our case, the family bed didn’t work with one kid but did with the other. If we had a third, we’d probably have to figure out yet another way to get through the night.

That said, I believe that sleep-sharing should be reserved for needy kids—not for needy adults. If you’re still sleeping with your kid because you’re lonely or need physical comforting, don’t. Children need to assert their independence. I think it’s coming soon for our family. Yes, I’ll miss the physical closeness with my son, but I won’t miss having him wake me at 3:30 a.m. as he crawls into my bed.

Sleep-sharing won’t be the only reason my boy’s become a confident and loving kid, but it might be a contributing factor.

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8 thoughts on “Edgy Mama: The family bed

  1. At what age do you think it’s safe to kick them into their own room? My two kids will be 9 and 14 this year.

  2. I was making a funny. They hate each other actually, so I can’t imagine them sleeping in the same bed!

    We kept them in our bed until we weaned them. It was much easier for my wife at night.

  3. Oh good, Orbit. You see, I have no idea how to respond when someone actually asks for advice. I write about parenting, but I’m not in any way, form, or fashion, an expert on the subject.

  4. Rio

    Studies have shown that boys don’t get as much parental “touch” time as girls, so I think it’s great that your boy wants that closeness. My kids have not cared for many years about a parent nearby, but boy do they fight about who gets what dog.

  5. Kristin

    Pretty brave taking on the family bed issue, Edgy Mama. My son was constantly in the bed till 4 or so and in and out until at least 6. Even at 9, if my partner is out of town, he’ll ask if he can crawl in bed with me. My daughter seemed to change at some point. As a baby, she wanted to have space around her, and though she slept in the bed, she didn’t want anyone too close. At some point that all fell apart. When she comes into our bed now (about 3 or 4 nights per week), she is practically on top of me. Luckily I sleep through pretty much anything and we have made a big deal of it when she gets into the bed without waking anyone (“Wow! You are so SNEAKY! How did you get in here?”) My partner has moaned and groaned about the family bed off and on, too, but he never lays down with her in her bed when I am not home, and I often find them contentedly snuggled up together. The family bed certainly made the nursing years much easier. I often didn’t wake at all. I believe there are many reasons my children and I have closer relationships than I did with my parents, but I really think the family bed is one of them.
    I would say that in addition to not sleeping with your kids to meet your own emotional needs, it is important to not martyr yourself. I am very anti martyrdom parenting, and I see an awful lot of it. If sleeping with your kids drives you crazy, don’t do it. It is not worth the resentment, and nobody wants to listen to your b*%^hing, anyway.

  6. From California

    we never made love in bed anyway. our child was conceived on a rug under the Christmas tree in Asheville. our bed is now a family bed (co-sleeping?? is what we call it out here), and I miss stretching out, but now that it is shared, our little boy rolls over the edge of his crib at around 3am and just snuggles up to us. Breast feeding is a cinch and we get great sleep (mostly).

  7. Brant

    We let both of our girls sleep in a bedside bassinet until they physically outgrew it. We then put them in a crib in their own room. They have slept in their own beds ever since. We do, however, continue to use a “baby monitor” even though they are now ages 9 and 6.

    There are a few exceptions: When I am out of town for work, one or both of the girls will sleep in our bed. Also, when one of the girls is sick, my wife will let her sleep on the love seat in the family room and my wife will sleep on the couch to keep an eye/ear out for the sickling. :)

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