Sleeping with children

In the middle of the night, the smell, feel and touch of a small child soothes a restless mother.

By Dulcie Leimbach
Published August 13, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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I began sleeping with my son when he was a toddler, out of the crib, and his skin was supple and his hair felt like goose feathers. He was about 2 years old, and his belly hung over his diapers, but what I remember most was his freshwater smell, as if he had stepped out of a pond. It was so natural and raw that I lay next to him just to inhale his luxuriousness. He seemed impossibly brand-new.

The contrast between us was sharp: my rough skin, my tired eyes and my weary bones were like night against his day. I snuggled against my son for comfort, rest, a tiny sense of solace and to reacquaint myself with him after my long hours at work.


I had never been so physically close to a young child. Having slept with my husband for seven years, I was ready to experience something completely different; why not try my own son? He did not sleep with us when he was a baby; the books all warned against that idea, and we were ready to follow the books. He started out in a bassinet, and then we put him in a crib in the far end of our loft. He slept there about a year before he graduated to the adult twin-sized bed in his room. I had slept in that bed when I was pregnant with him, suffering from insomnia.

Because my pregnancy had been complicated with positive test results for toxoplasmosis in my fourth month, I'd started waking around 3 a.m. every night, worried about my baby's health. If exposed to toxoplasmosis, a fetus's brain can be severely damaged. In the midst of this bad news, I underwent a fetal-blood surgical procedure to determine if he had been exposed to the toxoplasmosis that I was carrying in my bloodstream; the results took four weeks. During that time I became a changed person, an insomniac, suddenly aware of what it was like not to sleep.

Each night I stirred restlessly for two or three hours at a stretch, praying to go back to sleep. Meanwhile, at work, an editor in my office told me that I did not know "how to write a book review," an assignment she had given me. During those sleepless nights, I obsessed over that criticism to deflect what I really didn't want to think about: whether or not my future son would be born with a fully developed brain. In the process, I lost so much sleep that in the morning I was barely able to get up, eat, dress and head down to the subway station. I'd stand on the platform so disoriented that I'd have to grope my way to the train when it pulled in, grateful when I didn't fall onto the tracks.


The insomnia didn't lift after I learned that my son was fine. The curse of sleeplessness has stayed with me for 11 years. But the good news was that Joseph was born on time, a strapping 9-pounds plus a few ounces. Bald and egg-white and fleshy, he was eager for my embrace. If I had to forgo sleep for a healthy baby, so be it. I accepted my insomnia as part of my life.

I happily left my husband in our own bed when I began to sleep with Joseph. It was as if my attachment to him had shifted to our son. It didn't seem to break my husband's heart, and as I listened to Joseph's heavy, sonorous breathing, I realized I was there keeping an eye on him, making sure he wouldn't drift off to heaven, the way my own father, also named Joseph, had done in his sleep 25 years earlier.

I liked to feel my son's arms up against my face; I liked to hold his hands, which fell into mine like a plant in soil. I liked to wrap my right arm around his waist as we slept on our sides, his body emanating enough heat to fuel the entire loft all winter long. When my daughter came along five years later, I pretty much stopped sleeping with my son in his twin bed and started sleeping with my baby girl.


My husband and I broke all the parenting-book rules with her, probably out of fatigue and disgust with the meaningless advice. We were so exhausted from working and caring for two children (why don't the baby books tell you that raising children and working is the ninth circle of hell?) that any slight convenience, no matter how damaging it would be in the long run, was grabbed without hesitation. Our daughter slept in the bassinet next to our bed, but after her 3 a.m. feedings, I quickly picked up the habit of letting her stay in bed with us for the rest of the night. Besides, Isabella had a way of warming the cold spot between my husband and me.

At this time, my insomnia took a hiatus because I was so worn out from work and feeding and bathing a baby and a kindergartner at night that nothing could keep me awake. I was thankful for the sleep, even though it was broken by feedings. Once Isabella got older and some teeth, she slept in the crib, and occasionally I ended up in Joseph's bed, reminding him that I still loved him despite the new presence of his sister.


Then we bought a bunk bed from Ikea, and the crib was folded up and put away for good. Joseph was 7; Isabella was 2. Though she was young for the bottom bunk, she preferred it to the crib, anxious to do everything her big brother did.

I slept with her in the new bed for many different reasons. My husband and I were fighting a lot, and the best way for me to cope with that was to get into bed with my daughter instead of my husband. This, of course, was probably really wrong for all of us, although I did not care a whit about the long-term effects. She was a hot child, her body temperature was higher than Joseph's, and she was also as soft as a down-filled pillow. In terms of comfort, she beat my husband by a long shot.

Isabella had a way of sinking into me, her head and arms and legs finding the cavernous spots in mine, the two of us fitting together like a puzzle. Her hair was light and breezy like an angel's, and her stomach, in which I rested my hand, was mushy like pudding. When the wheels of insomnia returned full force because of an intense workload -- I was working two jobs to make ends meet -- and I couldn't stand to toss and turn in my own bed for hours, I'd slip in with her. She'd turn to me in her dream state by instinct. Though I didn't go back to sleep right away, I felt more relaxed, my anxieties slowly lifting.


Some nights my husband slept with her. Isabella was and still is an insistent child who requires you to do what she wants, no matter how many times you say no. My husband would read to her, then after much cajoling and begging and whining from her, he'd crawl into bed with her just to get her to shut up and sleep. I know that he also enjoyed her softness as much as I did -- Isabella became the cushion between our own warring souls and the demands put on us from the rest of the world. She became our fix.

Miraculously, she finally slept solo when she hit 4. We were staying in a beach house, and she had her own room for the first time. She enjoyed taking this big step, was all gushy about it, and by this time, lying with her at night to help her to sleep had suddenly become an onerous chore. Plus, our fights had eased up. It was taking too much effort to bicker. So we seized the moment and encouraged her to sleep on her own once we returned to New York. With a few rewards, namely a juicy looking Barbie doll, it worked.

I slept with my husband again, the insomnia pestering me less frequently. Now when I'm mad at my husband, I still sleep with him, knowing that my daughter is too old to have her mother by her side through the night. In the back of my mind has always been the image, too, of my younger sister sleeping with my mother, a widow, until she was nearly a teenager. They now live in the same city, a mile away from one another, and their relationship borders on the destructive. I want my daughter -- and son -- to flourish in this wild, unruly universe, and if sleeping with them gets in the way, it's time to stop.


Yet I sneak into bed with Isabella every now and then; it's a tough habit to break. I like to feel her breath on my face, wishing I could sleep as soundly.

Dulcie Leimbach

Dulcie Leimbach is a writer and editor who lives in New York.

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