Parenting with Presence: Co-Sleeping

As attachment parents, my husband, Scott, and I have broken mainstream society's cardinal rule of parenting, our daughter has slept in our bed for, at least, some portion of most of her 3,532 nights on this planet.

At first, it was 100% by our choice. We wanted to nurse on demand, and the idea of co-sleeping, and the resultant bonding, appealed to us. Plus, as a first-time mom with a high risk pregnancy I was determined to mother (not smother) and protect her as strongly as I had when I begged, coerced, and babied my body into carrying her to term.

As time went on, we saw that she was a person who depended, and thrived, upon touch. It seemed imperative to co-sleep for her well-being and attachment parenting empowered us to listen to her and meet her needs.

At one point, to my later chagrin, we were convinced by the pediatrician that our instinct was wrong so we went to a "sleep whisperer" who put us on a sleep "deprogramming" plan. This plan involved removing me (mommy) from the house so that daddy could enforce the stay-in-bed-alone ritual. We failed. My heart tore open every time I left. I cried for the entire time I was exiled. And when I got home I couldn't help but put my eyes and lips on her to reassure myself we hadn't damaged her with the withdrawal of the comfort she had always known (often undoing Scott's hours of work - sorry honey!!). After that we surrendered to life as it was. Our life, it appeared, would be a life of co-sleeping, until she didn't need it to be.

She has had spells of sleeping alone, followed by spells of sleeping with us. She has slept in her bed for full nights, in a mattress at the foot of our bed, on a pallet she made in the middle of the night, with one of us in her bed, and yes, right smack between us in ours. Some nights, when she appears, Scott leaves the room to sleep in the spare room to get a full night's sleep so he can be awake for work.

Some of our most stressful times as a family have occurred when we have tried to "force" her to learn to sleep alone. The tears we have collectively cried could fill an ocean. The steps I have walked between our rooms must measure in the miles. And the guilt I have felt is more than enough for a lifetime.

She is almost ten now, in case you didn't do the math, and we have had two periods in the past year when she willingly stayed in her bed for more than two months at a time. She desperately wants to sleep in her own bed and she doesn't like feeling so dependent on us. But the reality of the darkness, noises, physical chill of being alone (even with the dog cuddling with her), and emotional knowledge of being down the hall from us turns out to be too much.

"She is manipulating you." "She's got you right where she wants you!" "Stop letting that child rule your life!" These are all statements I often hear about our sleeping arrangement. Unfortunately, given that I live with multiple autoimmune and chronic illnesses, I sometimes succumb to the advice and feeling that having her in our bed is harming my sleep. So I start a new era of fighting with her. I cajole, I yell (yes I forget myself and yell, sleep deprivation can make even the most aware parent lose their zen), and I get caught up in the tug-of-war that serves neither of us.

A few months ago, I tried a new tactic. I incentivized sleep. I told her I would pay her for nights of sleep, thinking if I could use a positive reinforcement to help her break the cycle, a new habit would be formed. She bought in full-heartedly! She loved it. She gets a huge kick out of saving money, and thought this was the biggest deal, ever. I paid her for her easy bedtimes for two weeks. It worked! A new habit was formed. She slept soundly without event...for two months. And, unfortunately, like past successes with meditation, essential oils, vitamins, sound machines, etc., her fears have won out this time too. The easy sleep has stopped again.

We are back to the steady stream of visits to my bedside. "I'm scared/thirsty/lonely/hot/cold/hearing noises. I can't sleep! I need you!" Then last night as I was about to get annoyed that she wasn't allowing the meditation music to work its magic, I received the following text from her bed, "Sorry for all the inconvenience." Simultaneously, it broke my heart and snapped me back into being present, being attached, and remembering that no matter how big she seems she is still my little girl navigating her way in a big scary world. She is not manipulating. She is communicating her needs.

I went to her immediately. I comforted her, kissed her, tucked her back in, and said, "you will never inconvenience me, no matter what." We restarted the meditation and she went to sleep.

I may not be doing it right by society's standards, but I am again choosing to be present to my child's needs, I'm recommitting myself to help her find her way to restful sleep in the least traumatic way possible. I'm doing what's right for us. If that includes some nights in my bed, so be it. Because when she is grown, those lack of sleep hours won't matter to me as much as her faith and trust in me to be there when she needs me, and the those extra cuddles will be an added bonus.

 

I wish you presence, full nights of sleep and lots of cuddles. 

Emily

 

Emily A. Filmore is the author of the With My Child series of children's books about family bonding. Withmychildseries.com. She is the co-author of Conversations with God for Parents with Neale Donald Walsch and Laurie Lankins Farley. (Rainbow Ridge, 2015). And the author of The Marvelous Transformation: Living Well with Autoimmune Disease about her experiences with chronic illness. (Central Recovery Press 2015). 

Disclaimer: Co-sleeping with infants is controversial and potentially dangerous if not approached with care and caution. It is not for everyone and should only occur when both parents are actively aware and choose to co-sleep, when no alcohol or mind-altering substances are used, and when you have done your own research on the safety measures and precautions that should be taken. For more information please read about co-sleeping at http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/sleep-problems/sleep-safety/cosleeping-safely