Let's co-sleep on it: How I became the mom I swore I'd never be

That will never be me, my former self claimed — and then we had kids who wanted to sleep in our bed

Published August 27, 2016 11:30PM (EDT)

 (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/supersizer'>Milan Marjanovic</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(Milan Marjanovic via iStock)

My son's tufted hair lies against the back of my neck. We are squeezed onto the same pillow. My pillow. In my bed. Sometime during the night he awoke or sleepwalked from his single frame bed to my bed down the hall. My husband, I notice, is squished to the edge of the mattress again. He will wake in the morning feeling unrested, but will kiss our son on top of the head before he leaves regardless. My son's legs have divided our bed into quadrants: my husband and I each allotted a quarter of the sleep real estate with my son receiving an ample finder's fee of 50 percent. He comes to our bed every night between 2 and 5 a.m., hungry for land like a developer stalking pristine woods; every night our bed is a new, or at least a familiar and persistent, conquest. Look at all of that unspoiled space between Mommy and Daddy! I'm rich, I tells ya!

I feel it imperative to note that my son is not a toddler. He is not new to sleeping alone in his bed. His toes reach to my knees while he sleeps between us. He is 8 years old.

Before I had children of my own, I knew of the co-sleeping model, but dismissed it as hippie nonsense when, while working at a literacy clinic, I discovered that one of my clients still slept with his mother at age 11. This particular case was extreme. In the parent questionnaire, the mom wrote that her son had anxiety and sleeping problems so she had slept with him since he was a baby. She was still married to the boy's father and they had other children. She chose to sleep with her 11-year-old in his single bed. That's nuts, I thought. How is she helping this child? How is she fostering a sense of independence? How, I wondered, is she still married? That will never be me, thought my 27-year-old sanctimonious self. I liked my bed all by myself. Until I got married, but even then, some me time alone in the bed with the temperature cold enough to pull blankets up to my chin, and the fan or air conditioner stifling the ambient noise with a steady brrrrrrrrr, was a delicious indulgence.

Once my husband and I had our first child, our daughter — a fiercely independent girl of 11 now — I booted all of my concerns and judgments about co-sleeping right out of my queen-sized bed. When I brought home my seven-pound bundle of soft skin and fuzzy hair, I tried putting her in the co-sleeper — a rickety bassinet that attached with Velcro to the box springs and mattress of our adjoining bed — but she cried, and I cried, and no one got any rest. Within two days of bringing home my new baby, I had ensconced her between me and my husband, wound tight enough for security in a receiving blanket. This, I rationalized, would allow me to feed her during the night without having to stretch the long way over the co-sleeper. This, I rationalized, would make the feeding more efficient. She would feel satisfied and settle quicker. This would give us that skin-to-skin contact that my lactation consultant kept going on about, so needed for bonding, milk letdown and more intuitive nursing.

Eventually, we gave the co-sleeper back to the couple who had lent it to us. My daughter was sleeping with us every night. Sadly, however, the intuitive nursing wasn't happening. By the sixth week, we were both in tears trying to nurse, to eke out enough nourishment before turning to formula. But even after making the decision to stop nursing, my husband and I held fast to the decision to co-sleep. By then, we felt we could best protect our fragile girl with both of our bodies surrounding hers. So much for hippie nonsense.

Two weeks before my daughter's third birthday, I delivered our second child, our son. In order to prepare for his arrival, we began weaning our daughter out of our bed. I'm not sure any of us were ready for this abrupt change, but for the safety of our newborn, we knew it was the right thing to do. At first, we walked our daughter back to her bed when she came during the night. We also laid down a Tinker Bell sleeping bag for her if she awoke and wanted to be near us. But mostly, we relented and allowed her into our bed to sleep between us. She was very concerned about her brother's safety and gently arched away from him or kept several inches of distance from him in her sleep. I took great efforts to hold the baby in the crook of my arm until that arm fell asleep, and then I woke my husband for a turn. These nights hummed along without fuss, without drama, but with many a stiff neck until both children began elementary school.

Somewhere around my daughter's third grade year and my son's kindergarten year, we began reading family books at bedtime instead of reading individually to the children. By far our favorite read-aloud series was "Harry Potter." Every night we gathered in my son's room and my husband and I took turns reading Harry's adventures while our son nestled beside whomever was reading in his long, blue bed. Our daughter listened as she reclined against her shaggy bedrest pillow on the rug. Family reading time is just another example of how my husband and I clung to our children at bedtime, despite our protests of wanting them out of our beds. We have been terribly inconsistent. Every night after reading a chapter, delving further into J. K. Rowling's imagination, my husband rested with one child and I with the other. We finally finished the books this past fall and celebrated with a trip to Orlando to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where the kids slept in their own beds, in their own room ... until our son traipsed across the condo and into our sheets. I'd love to tell you that once we finished "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" both children slept in their own beds, but in reality we picked up "The Hobbit" and our son still encroaches the space between me and my husband.

My own childhood bedtime experiences were nothing like what we have created with our children. Granted, I was born in the late 1960s when mothers were dissuaded from breastfeeding by their doctors. My mother was a lovely woman and a caring parent, but I cannot imagine her wanting the effort, mess and physicality of breastfeeding. Same goes for co-sleeping. Despite being born during the Summer of Love, I was not raised with newfangled, hippie notions of bonding. If Dr. Spock didn't say sleep in the same bed as your child, it didn't happen for me. According to my three siblings, I awoke regularly in the middle of the night crying for my mother from my barred crib. I remember her coming to me tired and angry a few times, but most nights I cried it out, just like Richard Ferber would recommend in 1985.

When my daughter was an infant, I admit we tried to Ferberize her. We rocked her to recorded lullabies, then gently lowered her into her crib while leaving the music playing. We left a night light on and, from the advice we read on various parenting websites, we slowly backed out of the room, sometimes so incrementally that only a time lapse camera could capture the movement. Once we exited the room and held our breath on the other side of her door, she started wailing and we crumpled, our willpower destroyed, our baby in our arms yet again.

By the time our daughter entered third grade, my husband was frustrated with the sleeping arrangements. He never felt rested and always woke up hanging off the side of the bed. We tried goal charts and bribes with my daughter to break her from coming to our bed. We asked her to sleep at the foot of the bed if she was determined to stay, hoping her discomfort would drive her back to her bedroom. Some nights I had an eerie feeling that someone was watching me while I slept. I would inch my eyes open and find my daughter standing next to my side of the bed, silent, watching. She never just climbed in bed, like her brother. She needed me to approve. Usually I was so dang tired that I said, "Okay, just this once," for the fortieth time, and she'd take her place at the foot of the bed.

Honestly, I'm not sure what changed for her. I doubt it was anything either my husband or I consciously stated or enacted. Maybe she just matured and decided she didn't need us anymore. I suspect sleepovers with friends helped prove to her that sleeping didn't require parental guidance. I'm pleased to say that I do not have an 11-year-old sleeping in my bed, nor do I sleep in hers. Take that, mom from my past who eschewed her marital bed to enable her son's insecurity. I'm not you!

Except that I am.

My son shows no signs of leaving our bed anytime soon. With my daughter now in middle school, I feel torn about this. My son is our baby. He's the last child and he's snuggly and warm and sweet. I love turning over in the morning and finding him resting beside me, his face flushed with healthy sleep, his spindly long lashes brushing his still-round cheeks. And sometimes, he'll catch me staring at his lovely face, eyes slowly, just barely opening, and he'll say, "Good morning, Mommy," and whisper a kiss. I know I can't hold onto these mornings in my quadrant of mattress forever. I know I'm near the end of this tender time with my children. I want them both to be independent, both in life and in sleep, but I selfishly still want to be needed and loved and whisper-kissed with morning breath across my pillow.

Eleven is still three years away for my son. We will practice walking him back to his room and into his own bed. We will try a goal sheet with bribes and stickers. And in the ensuing days, I must admit I will savor my tiny mattress quadrant, pressed neck-to-breath against my growing child.

By Amy M. Miller

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Co-sleeping Life Stories Mothers Parenting