Saturday, October 15, 2011

Confessions of a Sleep-Deprived Mama: Co-Sleeping with My Toddler Part 2

I rarely talk to people about sleep anymore. While it used to be the most popular topic amongst us new mothers, somewhere along the way more babies started sleeping through the night  and conversations moved on to new developmentally appropriate fixations. Terrible sleep was something that you were supposed to be done with by the time your child was nine months, or twelve, or in my case, certainly by eighteen months. Friends will complain about the occasional bad spell brought on by a cold, but few I know still put up with regular wakings throughout the night, every night. Or perhaps, like me, they just aren’t so eager to talk about it.

Partly, I’m tired of the topic myself. Oh, yeah, sleep. Yeah, read that book, thought about that approach, decided against it, made peace with my lot. And partly, I don’t want to incur people’s judgment. Poor thing. (If you’d only gotten past your guilt/passivity/misguided attachment theories and tried sleep training months ago!).

Mothers are naturally empathetic to other mother’s struggles (because we all have our struggles, right?), but we can also be quick to judge. In theory, sure, to each their own, we all have our own parenting styles and we can respect each other’s choices. But it’s hard to completely stifle that underlying layer of judgment, that layer that says: they can do things their way, but I am thankful I am doing it my way. Perhaps you don’t even recognize the judgment hidden behind this statement, because it’s so finely masked. But if we have formed any kind of opinions about parenting, about why we’re doing what we’re doing because it is the best way, then judgments are almost impossible to avoid. And perhaps I am most weary of other’s  judgments because I am also avoiding the part of me that is secretly judging myself.

For the most part, I’ve grown to accept our situation. Basically, most nights, Cedar goes down about 6:30 (in our family bed, a king-sized mattress on the floor), and wakes up about an hour later. I rush in, nurse him for a few minutes, and am usually able to sneak out of there within ten minutes. My husband and I creep around our tiny house, avoiding doing dishes that will clank or turning on music, and obsessively turning down or up the volume when we watch our shows, when a scene gets too loud or else too soft to hear. If we’re lucky, Cedar might do another two hour stretch before waking again. I’ll wait to make sure he’s really waking, then go back in and quickly nurse him back to sleep. And then, when my husband and I go to bed around 10:30, he sometimes wakes from our rustling or from the need to move him over. Then, he’ll usually do a couple three hour stretches at night before he wakes around 6 a.m. and nurses/drifts in and out of sleep until we all rise at 7.

This probably sounds like hell, and to be fair to myself, yes, it can still feel like a form of torture to not have had a single unbroken night’s sleep for 18 months and beyond. And yet, when I want to, I can make it sound not quite so bad by explaining that, most of the time, Cedar’s ‘wakings’ are super brief, so brief that he is not fully waking so his sleep is not disturbed, and I am waking just enough to stick a boob in his mouth for ten minutes or so (or, on rare occasion, just pat his back).

Our sleep situation is way better than it used to be, when Cedar was waking up to every hour or two, often from stabbing gas pains that would cause him to cry and writhe in agony, and sometimes keep us up for hours. And it’s way better than various other periods where he was fighting going to sleep at night, or when he could only go to bed at night when it was me, mama, who put him down. It felt like a major coup when Cedar learned to go to sleep on occasional nights by just lying there next to my husband. Now, he mostly only gives a cursory protest before settling in to rest his head on Papa’s chest. I cannot tell you what a great sense of freedom I gained once I was able to feel relaxed about going out at night, or not having to be the one to go back into the room when Cedar wakes (although, most nights, I usually still am—the quicker we can get back to our show).

I have my theories about why my toddler is still waking. Partly, I do think he is simply a light sleeper. We finally got a white noise machine, but the verdict is still out whether or not this is helping. Mostly, however, I think it’s now just habit. Somewhere way back around four or five months, Cedar started waking a lot, mostly from his gas issues. By the time his gas/food sensitivity saga gradually got better, his habit of frequent waking was firmly ingrained.

Anyone who’s read up on babies and sleep knows that all babies, all humans for that matter, have brief wakings throughout the night. The difference is that some learn to drift back by themselves when they wake, and others continue to rely on their parents. Some would argue that by never having put my child through ‘sleep training’ and letting him cry it out when he wakes, I have deprived my child of important self-soothing skills and made him unnecessarily dependant. And, trust me, when I have gone through phases of “We must change this!”, fervently reading anything from Pantley to Ferber, it has been hard for me to deny the rationale in these arguments. But when it comes down to it, I have not been able to go that route.

For one, we are coming at this from the history of Cedar’s wakings being related to pain—and my ability to help him with his pain, whether by nursing or massaging his tummy. Sometimes, on occasion, food that I eat or feed him still does not agree, and he still wakes from gas, even if the pain is less severe than it used to be. In these instances, I cannot imagine just letting him cry. And since often we don’t know why he’s waking until we go in, I’d rather just err on the side of helping him. Sometimes now it’s teething, and sometimes it’s just waking to our noise, but since the “cry it out” approach seems to be an ‘all or nothing’ deal if you really want it to work, we have decided to stick with the responsive, assisting approach.

This is not to call those who have ‘trained’ their babies to go back to sleep on their own insensitive or cruel. Trust me, I am envious. And if I thought it would be a viable solution with our baby, now toddler, I would have tried harder at it. (As it was, we did a little experimenting with letting Cedar cry, but because of all our variables, not to mention simply an instinctual part of me that overrode my brief moments of resolve, it didn’t seem worth it to me.) In retrospect, the time to try harder would have been when he was younger—before I was worried about him rolling off the bed, and long before he was able to crawl out of bed by himself. But when he was younger, gas was still more of an issue, and let’s face it—some of us parents are just not cut out for that approach, and it’s not because we’re weaker and it’s not because we’re more humane; it’s just not right for us, or for our babies. We feel this somehow, and all these attempts to justify are just that.

Okay, but one last justification. Sleep training and co-sleeping are two approaches to so-called “nighttime parenting” that don’t exactly seem to coincide. Not unless you are willing to continue with “the program” through the night, refusing to nurse or soothe your baby as he wails at your side. Um, no. Part of the reason we’ve chosen to co-sleep is because it makes it easier to soothe our baby at night. And because we don’t believe that this extended closeness with our offspring is going to breed problems with our child’s future independence, but to the contrary, we actually feel it might be good for them—good for their sense of security and belonging within our family unit.

This brings me to the subject of co-sleeping. Why is it that when I tell people we still co-sleep, I feel like I’m uttering some kind of dirty word? Co-sleeping has become more acceptable, at least in the culture of parenting here in Seattle; many parents try it, or revert to it when their babies are young. But the numbers drop by the time your baby is a toddler, and then it seems only the hardcore diehard believers, attachment parenting enthusiasts remain.

But let me make this clear: I am annoyed by parenting dogma and labels, whatever camp it falls into, and I do not consider myself to be an “attachment parent”, however much my practices may fall into this category. I am annoyed by those who assert this is right and this is wrong, and I believe that we all make the choices we do for our kids based on a combination of informed rationale, and a healthy dose of intuition—whatever in the end feels right for us.

Sometimes I suspect that Cedar would wake less now if he were in his own bed, because he does wake sometimes when we toss, turn, or rise to go to the bathroom. Sometimes it feels like torture when, say, I’m nursing him back to sleep at 4 a.m., and it seems to be taking an especially long time, and before I know it I’m fully awake and aware of the fact that I have to pee and my throat is parched, but I know that if I try to get up right after he’s drifted off that he will wake again and cry because I’m leaving his side, so I don’t.

Or, the older Cedar gets, the more he moves around in bed, and the more that nursing can feel like an acrobatic sport, with him lieing on top of me, rolling from side to side, then me lying him down at my side again, then him climbing on top again. Repeat. He likes the closeness of my body, and sometimes, I do too. But it’s hard for me to fall asleep with him mashed up against me—and especially when he’s lying on my organs. And yet. Some nights, especially during that late morning period when he’s in a lighter sleep state, I give up and just let him fall asleep on top of me. Then eventually, when it feels safe, I gently roll him off to my side. Because, more than anything, I just want him to fall back asleep. For me to be sleep deprived is one thing, but for both of us to be is much worse.

Does this sound like hell? Sometimes, yes, it is. And yet. Will you believe me if I say that I experience daily moments, born of this “family bed”, that make co-sleeping feel worth it? That despite it all, there are huge parts of the experience that I still love? I don’t think that with our experiences with co-sleeping that I could convince anyone, not even my closest friends, to try it if they weren’t already pre-disposed to the idea. And yet.

Here’s what I love about it: I love the feeling of snuggling with my baby. Whether at naptime, or in the early morning hours, I love the way that I can hold him close to my body and the way that his sleeping body instinctually responds to this touch—to this knowledge that his mama is nearby—with relief, with a sense of safety. I know mothers whose babies do not like to snuggle, and although this might be an in-born trait, I cannot help but think that it is also a trait that we can grow accustomed to, or not. Cedar is one of those babies that has been held a lot—out of necessity, and out of his mother’s preference, which then became a form of habit. And now he is a toddler who is cuddly as can be. To contradict myself, there are times when I can fall asleep with him nestled in my arms, and I love this. I love the way our bodies still fit together. I love this intimacy, whether we are playing around with him bouncing on me, or whether he is half asleep and guiding my breast back into his mouth with his hand when I try to pull it away prematurely, I love the feeling that our bodies still belong to each other, close to each other, as they should be.

There’s that word should. Sorry, I’ll try to avoid it in the future. But there is this undeniable sense of rightness for me to having my son in our bed with us, a rightness that unfortunately in our modern-day culture of cribs I feel driven to justify and defend. I love how easy it is to just lie down with him at naptime, and let my body decide whether I want to stay and nap myself. There are other perks, too. For instance, if Cedar is sick, I am automatically cued in to what is going on for him at night. If he is cold or too hot, if he has vomited or if his diaper has leaked, my body cues into it before my mind does, and my hand reaches over to check or fix the situation. Also, if we are camping or spending the night somewhere else, I don’t have to worry about bringing a traveling crib. He is used to being in bed with us, or else we’ll make a bed on the floor if the bed is too soft or there is not a side of the bed that can be pushed next to a wall. He is adaptable. Sort of.

Okay, so he needs us to be close to him at night. So what? Don’t you like sleeping next to your partner? Isn’t the presence of a warm body next to you a huge source of comfort, despite the fact that his snores might keep you up or that you can’t stretch out as comfortably as possible? Don’t you think a baby/child might enjoy and benefit from this same sense of sweetness? We can’t rationalize or quantify sweetness. But that doesn’t make it insignificant.

So there it is. That’s the main reason why we still co-sleep: sweetness. Never mind how it’s not dangerous when done right or how it might lead to exceptionally snuggable children. I love it for its sweetness, and for the chance to be that much closer to my child. Never mind that I spend a lot of time complaining about how I wish I had more time to myself. I still can’t express how much I love the feeling of my sweet, breathing, never will be this young again, child next to my side.

Never mind how much I sometimes hate it.

Okay, to be fair to myself, to my husband, and to those who might still be debating whether or not to co-sleep and for how long, I need to disclose more of what I hate about it. Namely, less intimacy with my partner. It’s way less convenient to grab that rare window where we have enough energy at the end of the day to consider sex. And, most nights I am either sandwiched in between the two, and afraid to move Cedar lest he wake again, or, Cedar is in between the two of us and kicking my husband in the head while nursing in a perpendicular formation from my body. I wouldn’t recommend co-sleeping without a king-sized bed, unless you are a single mom, or a midget.

Finally, I must mention that another major reason why it is easy for us to keep co-sleeping, ignoring all the lame aspects and embracing what we enjoy, is because we have a super small house with only one small bedroom. We barely would have had room for a crib if we’d kept our full-sized futon, so instead, we decided to get the king and embrace co-sleeping from the get-go. I also trusted all the material out there about how “mother and baby both sleep better” when co-sleeping, etc., etc., so our initial choice was still more philosophical than practical, but the practical motivation was a driving force too.

My husband and I have discussed moving our bed into the corner of the living room, erecting some college-era, hippy tapestries, and giving Cedar his own bed and room. Eventually, we will probably do this, seeing that the need to make this change will probably trump the day when we have enough financial stability to tackle our dream of a remodel. Some days, I think that we might want to try this sooner than later—perhaps next week even. I LOVE the idea of not waking up every 2-3 hours (wouldn’t you? HA.), and I am impressed by Cedar’s continual ability to adapt. I know we would have to go through a rough transitional period where I’d have to get up and go to him throughout the night, maybe welcome him back into our bed at times, but I suspect that it would eventually work out. And then me and my husband could finally reclaim some of our intimacy, even if it would be at the expense of losing space in our living room (namely, one of us, losing our desk space—and I can already hear the debate).

Other days, however, I think this is not the ideal time. Let’s wait until he’s two, or maybe three—a developmentally appropriate time of increased independence. Or let’s wait till he shows more signs of being ready to wean, for co-sleeping and nursing are pretty tied up together—and if this doesn’t happen (no signs of yet, just increased acrobatics), then when I’m ready. We nurse way less than we used to, but Cedar still can’t have dairy or soy; eggs and beans also give him gas; and meat he can take or leave depending on the day or preparation method. So it is important, if not vital, that I still nurse him right now for him to get enough protein and nutrients. I’m constantly experimenting and hoping, however, that his little body will be able to tolerate more and more.

For now, for better or worse, the family bed is what we’re stuck with, what we’ve chosen, what we both hate and love. Some nights Miles (our 18 pound cat) even joins us, and although this can be annoying and he often gets the boot, there are other moments where hearing his contented purr and feeling his warm lump next to my leg can even add to the sweetness. More bodies, more sweetness.

I will never really know if, and, if so, at what age, we all might have gotten better sleep already by giving Cedar a crib. For all I know (and suspect, or maybe just choose to believe), he would still have woken a lot, and I wouldn’t have been able to just block out his cries, and it would’ve just meant me getting up more, and perhaps just bringing him back to our bed. The choices we make for our children and our families—for some reason, especially regarding sleep—are deeply personal. That is why I don’t want anyone to tell me, or infer, or thus bring up my own guarded suspicions, that perhaps we should have done things differently.

For now, we’ve found our delicate equilibrium. Cedar is well rested most nights, and his naps are getting longer too. My husband doesn’t wake at night like I do (earplugs help, as does the fact that I’m the one with the boobs), so he lets me sleep in on the weekends so I can catch up on what I’ve lost during the week (this feels essential to my health). He also loves napping with Cedar on the weekends, a sweet ritual for the two of them. And we know that things will keep changing every day. Cedar surprises us with a new word, we let him try a new food, we have another bad night, and then we have a good night.

I am still tired. More tired than it seems I “should” be at this stage, more tired than I suspect most of my other mom peers are. And yet. I function. I drink coffee, then tea. I manage to crank out these blog entries, manage to entertain us all day, do my chores, pay the bills, and scribble out my next set of goals. And I am always, always, happy to greet my baby again after being apart from him, for however brief a rest. I am grateful that I still have lots of time to lie next to him, to hold him, to tickle and tease him, to ask for a hug or a kiss and get one in return, to feel his soft cheek against mine, to hold this precious being and remind myself, over and over, that these days are gonna continue to fly, and eventually, I’m not going to remember what was the big deal about a little missed sleep.


  1. Hi Anne -
    Because I'm sleep deprived (chronically) - I'm going to keep it simple. I love that you wrote this. And I'm right there with you. It'll be 7 years a week from today. Still alive - although sometimes I wonder how. A couple nights ago our third kid (now 2 years old) was awake for some reason from 11pm - 3am. Crawling on me, crying periodically, keeping me awake and I found myself thinking. Parenting is so hard. And no one talks about how hard it is. On facebook all the kids sleep through the night, eat healthy food, and smile for the camera. But I'm up for 4 straight hours with my two year old. And my almost five year old will be in here any minute.
    Or something like that.
    Anyway - fight the good fight and enjoy your baby.

  2. Hi Resourcerer,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Wow, seven years, it's hard for me to imagine, but it makes sense if you are on kid number three. It's hard to share the challenging, dare I say shitty, parts of parenting-- esp. online-- without sometimes feeling like you are either complaining too much, or, that this is a reflection of your inferior parenting skills-- especially when it comes to choices regarding sleep, it seems. Parenting IS so hard. We, as moms especially, carry on and smile through so much. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. This post was incredibly useful to me. I felt like I was reading about my own life-we share a very similar story and it is so important to our mental health to know we are not alone. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Thanks, Honorlee. It means a lot to me that other people can connect and get something useful out of my posts. Good luck to you on the sleep saga! We continue to have our good nights and bad nights, but on the whole things are definitely getting better.



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