Friday, October 19, 2007

It’s time to talk about co-sleeping

As if Bringing up baby hadn’t got me riled enough, I have just come across an NHS leaflet published by the Mid-Hampshire Primary Care Trust entitled ‘Let’s get some sleep!’ in amongst Arabella’s birth files. You would not believe the pictures on the front. There are two. The top one depicts a double bed with a screaming child lying in the middle of two grumpy parents turned away from both the child and each other. The bottom one shows a peacefully sleeping child with a big grin on his face, cuddling a teddy, in his own bed.

Talk about brainwashing! Nearly every parent I know would agree, whether they choose to co-sleep or not, that the screaming baby is to be found in the cot and the happy one, in the bed. Few people choose not to co-sleep because it is bad for the baby, let’s face it. I am well aware that, when I tell people (in the western world) Bella sleeps with us, the question most are dying to ask is, “What about your sex life?” To me this shows very little imagination. Firstly, I have a new born baby – what sex life? Secondly, our baby is not glued to the bed. Thirdly, we have a whole house (in case you thought we were in the unfortunate predicament of only living in a bed parked out on the street). Anyway having Bella in our bed has brought us closer, just as it did with Jemima first time round. Instead of falling into bed exhausted at the end of the day with barely a ‘good night’, we can’t help but share a few moments of mutual joy and adoration of this tiny bundle in our bed. Sometimes she is in the middle and sometimes she is on my side so James and I can still cuddle. Though, did I mention that it pushes 35ºc and 90% humidity some nights in Cambodia? Cuddling is actually something we associate more with our former and future lives in England, and the long summer holidays there in between. Quite honestly I think we did bloody well to even conceive a child in this clime.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that co-sleeping is bound to be better for most babies, if the parents enjoy it. I am not saying it is the only answer but for health professionals to argue that the cot is the only appropriate place for a child to sleep makes no sense. It flies in the face of research and what most of the world are actually practicing in the privacy of their own homes. If it is safety they are concerned about, then simple guidelines for safe co-sleeping would suffice, just as there are guidelines for practices which entail real danger such as driving with children.

If you are looking for a balanced, evidenced-based article with facts and figures, one that addresses SIDS and smothering, see the post below Three in a bed , an article I wrote for the Independent two years back. If you are looking for a passionate rant in defense of co-sleeping from someone who has tried cots & controlled crying too, then read on.

First let me refer back to this leaflet I was telling you about.

“Sleep problems are common. 40% of under fives have them at sometime or other.” Hmmm… funny that so many under fives suffer sleep problems and yet we continue to believe that the cot is the right answer. Funny that no one ever cites the copious research, that shows that children in countries where co-sleeping is the norm do not have sleep problems. I have seen this for myself, having lived in South America and Asia and worked in Africa.

“Babies should learn “sleep cues” as part of their bed-time routine… e.g. sucking thumb, listening to music etc.” Most babies I know have a different type of sleep cue. Crying, bottle of milk, parent’s rocking them or falling asleep with them or endless threats and negotiations at the bedroom door are a few that come to mind. I’ve tried them all.

“Usually by six months babies eat three meals a day and receive enough food not to need milk or other food at night”. Try telling that to my three year old, and anyway, WHO recommends babies wait until at least six months before starting solids.

“Work towards not being in your baby’s bedroom as he/she goes to sleep”. Why? How sad that this has become an official recommendation. It’s a bit Big Brother isn’t it? Who says we can’t be there to comfort and soothe our baby if we choose? And anyway, when are we going to admit that this is what babies want and need?

How long do we plan to ignore the research and uphold this myth that it is right to force independence on our small babies, let alone that it is possible? I cannot wait for someone with power and influence to stand up and admit that there is a link between the increasing numbers of stressed and depressed children, unhappy, badly behaved teenagers and adults with sleep problems or in therapy for ‘unmet needs’, and conventional Western parenting methods. This person would have to be very brave though because this leaflet simply reinforces what new parents want to hear. It cannot be a coincidence that parents are more likely to co-sleep with the second or subsequent child. They know from experience that the goal we are all told to aspire to, a happy baby who goes to sleep on his/her own without fuss is so unusual. The latter may be achievable through leaving to cry, but I said a ‘happy’ baby.

Recommended books in this leaflet put me off just by their very names, let alone their content. “Toddler Taming”, “The Baby and Toddler Sleep Programme”… they make our children sound like animals in a zoo. Which is how we end up treating them.

Perhaps I sound judgmental but I am not just talking about other parents. We ‘sleep trained’ Jemima at about six months and, although regretting it and experimenting with co-sleeping soon afterwards, we have been more or less making up for it ever since. These days she likes me to curl up with her while she falls asleep. I am happy to oblige but, given what an independent soul she is, one who frequently loses herself in her own games in her room by day, I do wonder from where she gets her negative associations with sleep. I am pretty sure things would have turned out very differently had we co-slept from the start. Bella, on the other hand, has never slept anywhere at night but in bed with us, and by day, wherever she happens to be. We can put her down awake on our bed and she will fall asleep on her own. She is a laid-back baby but from the beginning she has been a sensitive babe who likes to be held a lot. I am 100% certain that in her case she has no issue with sleep because she knows we are around and that we will be joining her soon. Had we used a moses basket I am sure she would not be such a secure sleeper.

Anyway, enough ranting. There is another point to all this. Sleeping with your baby and child is just so lovely! It makes me sad that having a baby has become all about disaster prevention, training, preparation for the difficult times ahead. I could have stayed in the NGO business for that! Motherhood should be animal, instinctive, sensual. I want to saturate myself and my children with love, physical touch and affection. I can’t stop smelling their cheeks, kissing their lips, deeply breathing them in. The time is flying by and I never want to regret not having truly lived every moment of it. It may not be long before they no longer want me to love them this way and before they no longer love me back this way. It won’t be long before they are teenagers shrugging off my desperate hugs at the school gate!

Sleep, sex, privacy, we’ll have that for the rest of our lives. I’ll always be a wife (well, that’s the plan anyway), I’ll always work, write etc. But I won’t always have two small, adorable, always-lovable children to hold in my arms, day or night. ‘Experts’ who advise us to love our children less (Too strong? Love is surely all about giving, making them happy, fulfilling needs, not making them cry) ought to reflect a little before interfering in something so entirely unique and intimate as the relationship between parent and child.

This is too long, sorry. I’ve said enough for now. But I’ll be back…


Iota said...

I think part of the decision to have a baby in a cot is based on fear. We had our first in our bed (hadn't planned to, but he made it clear he was much happier, so we went along with it). He was happy to move out into a cot aged 7 months. By the time we'd had our second and third, the research-based advice was highlighting the dangers much more strongly. There's a bit of every mother which can't help thinking "if something dreadful happens, I will blame myself anyway, but I will blame myself much more if I've acted against conventional wisdom and explicit advice". I agree with you. It's a shame we aren't all encouraged to follow our instincts. Parenthood has become a place of fear, and once that has reached the bed, you know it has permeated everywhere.

Tara said...

I was awoken this morning by my nearly two-year old daughter stroking my hair and kissing me and saying: 'Bonjour gentille Maman' ('Morning, nice Mummy' - we speak French at home...) It is guaranteed to make you wake up with a smile on your face. We co-slept from day 1 (a bit by default, although I had read DJ's excellent book when pregnant) and although it hasn't always been plain-sailing, I can't see how putting her in a cot would have made it any easier...and if they are ever sick, my God are you glad they are in bed with you. Incidentally, you try and show me someone who has NEVER slept with their baby in their bed - but people mention it really sheepishly - like it is shameful or wrong! Half the child-population of the world would not have made it - if it were so dangerous!! Why fight it?! Isn't it better just to make it work for you? We have a 'triple' bed = a double + single lined up together and it makes for the best padded playground in the daytime!

Mangy said...

oh have just checked out the leaflet and spoken to the midiwifes from the Hampshire PCT - they unfortunatley, like every other NHS Trust, have to give this advise as this is the advise of the Department of Health courtesy of the Sudden Infant death Syndrome (SIDS) society. Midwifes agree that UNICEF give differing advise but until the DoH takes this on board, the advise has to remain the same.

Most unsatisfactory however not particualr to the Mid hants PCT...if that helps!!

Anna said...

Hi Georgie,
I know this was posted a long time ago, and I don't know if you will even see the comment. However I just wanted to let you know that THIS was what i needed to read today. My son nis 7 months old and wakes up ??? how many dozen times in the night? right next to me. He has been more squirmy lately, and my husband has to get up at 4:30 for work. And he's been getting as desperately tired as I've been for 7 months now.
So although I totally agree with your "sleep training for mothers" post, what about fathers? He has been sleeping out on the couch, but not liking it (or sleeping well i might add). He is pushing for A CHANGE. Like moving the baby to the crib, and making him sleep somehow. you know where this is going.

Today I questioned everything again. I went to websites of sleep consultants. I read "what to expect during the first year". And then i came here. where else for motherly support?

anyhow, i feel so strongly in my heart that CIO is not the way to go, that the only way, as you've said, is through. The words in this post ring true for me, and we go on.
Thanks again,

Georgie said...

Thank you for sharing this Anna! So glad you have felt encouraged. Bella is now only waking once a night now two more teeth have come through. Just shows doesn't it - let nature take its course and it all makes sense in the end. It is late but I will write about dads one day too. Gx