Emily Writes goes deep undercover to expose the secret lives of families who share a bed.
I meet her in a dark alley. I hear her before I see her. She’s holding a shusher in her hand and it’s rhythmically shushing into the deep impenetrable blackness of the night. I assume she only has a few minutes to meet me. I’ve heard about co-sleeping mothers, I know they’re always in bed with their children.
She whispers to me to follow her into the basement of a church. Inside I hear raucous laughter. The room is full of co-sleepers. Some are wearing their babies, others are without their children, drinking tea and eating budget Tim Tams.
We are at a secret gathering. I am amazed. How are these women out at night? And where are their rods? Their backs seem perfectly fine to me.
I sit down next to a woman who suspiciously has no bags under her eyes. She looks bright, happy. It must be a trick.
She tells me she co-sleeps with her one and two year old. Not having to get up during the night repeatedly, or listen to awful screaming, means she’s actually very well rested.
I don’t believe this at all. I have read enough articles written by sleep consultants to know co-sleeping mothers are depressed. This woman is positively glowing.
I move to the next mum.
She is reading a book on her Kindle. She tells me that she loves to read in bed with her baby nestled beside her. She works long hours and being with her baby at night calms him and her. She relishes the time she spends with him breathing softly beside her.
What is this sorcery? You’re not meant to enjoy co-sleeping! It is certainly not a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s like everything we’re being told by people who make money from mothers feeling desperation about sleep might not actually be true?
For safe sleeping guidance visit the Ministry of Health’s page on safe sleep
Oh god, a dad is here. I ask if he’s lost. He tells me that he’s a proud co-sleeper. This is outrageous. Men don’t co-sleep. Men are meant to want their “marital bed” back. Does he not know that co-sleeping will make him cheat, buy a Ferrari and ride off into the sunset with his secretary Janis? He tells me that co-sleeping helped him bond with his babies and he loves that the whole family is together at night. He loves that his wife gets rest and he feels like his role is as vital as hers. Co-sleeping is a choice he’s made with his wife and they’re really happy with it.
His wife joins us. I am appalled. Where are the children?! They say they’re with a babysitter. This I know is impossible. Because I’ve seen enough comments on Facebook to know co-sleepers are always stuck to their children and they have no social life and can never leave their children with anyone else ever. Not ever.
They explain that sometimes they have to lie with one of their kids for a few minutes until they drift off but nine times out of ten their kids sleep all night so their evenings are free for movies and going to swingers bars.
I feel it’s my duty to inform them that there is no way they’re having sex. They laugh. They tell me actually they feel closer than ever thanks to co-sleeping. They don’t resent each other like they used to when one parent always had to get up all night to a crying and upset child. They roll their eyes when I point out that beds are for sex and we don’t use beds for anything else surely, because that’s what I read on KidsSpot. I pity people who think the bed is the only place to have sex, she says and winks at her partner.
Finally I see an exhausted mum. She looks on the verge of tears. I knew it! The sleep consultants, the grandmothers, that woman at the bus stop who told me my son was too big to carry, the journalists in need of a story that will rark up Facebook, the bloggers getting 20% commission on sleep consultant referrals – they were all right! Co-sleeping mums are depressed!
I am euphoric as I approach her. She’s unhappy, thus proving every point ever made about how co-sleepers are nuts. She explains she has PND. But, unexpectedly, she doesn’t feel that it’s due to co-sleeping. She feels it’s due to a combination of things – isolation, her child having reflux, her GP not listening to her when she tells him every day feels like walking through sludge. Co-sleeping is a relief, she tells me. She sleeps by her baby and it’s one of the few times she doesn’t feel like she’s failing. That is until she opens Facebook and sees the endless judgement about her choice. She says it’s the one choice that doesn’t feel like the wrong one. But if it’s right, how come everyone keeps telling her it’s wrong?
A grandmother sits in a corner. She tells me she had seven children and it makes her sad to see co-sleeping so vilified. There was no such thing as a sleep trainer when she had kids, she says. It was OK to just bring your child into bed if they needed a little extra. Some kids don’t sleep as easily as others, she says. Each child is so different, there can’t possibly be a one-size-fits-all approach. But she’s sad to see mums feeling like they can’t go to their babies for fear of making them soft or creating a “bad habit”. Cuddling should never be a bad habit.
Another woman and her mum tell me co-sleeping has always been part of their culture, and will always be. They face criticism, ignorance, and abuse for doing what their ancestors have done since the dawn of time. It’s a purposeful choice for how they want to raise their children. Yet they’re judged for it and harassed as if their child’s safety isn’t paramount.
Another mum’s child has a respiratory condition. She’s been encouraged to keep her son close by – and this helps her anxiety too. He has had a coughing fit in the night and she was able to lift him up straight away. Having him sleep next to her keeps him safe.
A paediatrician is here, appalled at the junk science and advice from sleep trainers. The term “self-soothing” has been plucked from the sky, she says. A mum of an adopted child is here too – she helped her child feel safe and secure by co-sleeping. Their bond is unbreakable now. Another mum has a child with a ferocious appetite. She tells me she sleeps all night while her child breastfeeds: “I never ever thought I’d be that mum, but here I am.”
Another mum has three children; she co-sleeps with her last. She no longer feels guilty for this. She knows it’s absolutely the right thing for her whānau. It works for them all.
A granddad is here. He tells of how lovely it is when his grandbabies come to stay and curl up next to him to sleep. He misses them when they’re not around. It’s a joy to have them snuggled up when they visit. A nana agrees. She never co-slept but she loves to wake to soft and sleepy smiles from her grandchildren.
Could it be that all those who scream about co-sleeping being The Worst Thing You Can Do Ever are actually wrong? Could it be that co-sleeping is just one choice available to families when it comes to sleep and it’s a choice that is actually a really perfect one for many, many families? Could it be time to stop writing shit articles about how co-sleeping is making mums anxious and they need to pay $299 to see someone who did an online course in how to get kids to sleep? Isn’t it time to wonder why we are fine with pets in bed but freak out when someone has their child in bed with them? Can we talk about the huge money the industry that encourages parents not to follow their instincts is making? Business is booming and the fact that people feel they need to hide that they co-sleep is so very wrong.
Maybe it’s time to come out of hiding. Co-sleepers are a broad church with heaps of families co-sleeping for heaps of different reasons. All are valid.
I co-sleep. I love it. Some nights are bad. Very bad. Other nights are OK. Most nights are great. It is a million times better than getting up all night to a crying child. I don’t regret my choices and I’m happy with what we are doing as a family. Co-sleeping is part of our parenting. In this home, it works so well. And I’m not going to feel ashamed or guilty about it. And I’m not going to believe the lies said about co-sleeping families. And you shouldn’t either.