Children’s sleep is a much discussed topic in parenting communities, in the media, on social networks and in families. Often, when a new baby is expected, well-meaning souls warn of the sleep deprivation to come and the challenges of getting enough rest. Before I was a mother I too thought of the difficulties of being awake tending to a baby when I’d like to be asleep. Being a naturally owlish being, I wasn’t too worried. Yet the horror stories came my way as friends ventured into parenthood and I heard tell of those who used all manner of devices and strategies to persuade their little ones into the land of nod, from dummies to driving, music to white noise. It seemed an unsolvable conundrum.
When I became pregnant, my family and I took great joy in turning a room, which at the time was my office space, into a ‘nursery’. Walls were stripped, books moved to other places, the desk heaved out; my workspace was transforming to create the space for a new being to be. It soon became the best room in the house, with Farrow and Ball paint, an expensive carpet and a suite of ‘baby’ furniture purchased with the love and funds of the grandparents in waiting. A friend did suggest that in the early days it may be best to sleep with the baby in our room. At the time, I thought we’d do this for around six months and then he’d move gradually into his own room, probably with us employing a range of strategies to ensure he stayed there.
I was wrong. When our son arrived, I hadn’t anticipated our fierce and animalistic need to be together. He slept by my side or in a moses basket and moved between the two as suited us best. Waking in the night took some getting used to, but I hadn’t factored in the wonderful sleep-inducing hormone hit that breastfeeding provides to induce sleepiness in both mother and baby. The nursery beckoned with its freshly gleaming walls and specially chosen textiles, yet it remained empty. Six months came and went in the blink of an eye and suddenly the moses basket was a snugger fit than desirable. What to do?
We live in a small terraced house, we have a standard double bed; family began making noises about it being time to move our little one into his own space, so we could get our space back, and surely, as he’d outgrown the basket, now was the right time. We were horrified – our space had become our space, for all three of us. We loved sleeping with our child, so the hunt for a solution was on. I scoured eBay looking for a specific cot model, an extra narrow one no longer in production, to allow us to continue to be together. Luck was on my side and I collected and drove my prize home, happy to rearrange the furniture instead of being separated from my little one. These actions were met with a certain amount of suspicion and concern from others, who pointed out that we had a bigger bed in the ‘nursery’ and wondered why we didn’t use it.
A year came and went. We continued to share our space, more often than not bedsharing with our son, who began the night in his new cot, then joined us when he needed to feed and to snuggle in what had become the ‘family bed’. This felt so instinctive and right to us, even in the face of warnings and scare stories, that we made sure we knew how do to it safely and got on with what suited our family best. I found out later that there are books available which explain the reasons why some families might want to sleep in this way; I still haven’t read any of them!
After a year, despite some expressions of disappointment from family, people generally stopped asking about our sleeping arrangements. Breastfeeding whilst lying down and not having to get out of bed at all to tend to our son’s needs seemed such a no-brainer, I couldn’t see why I’d want to make my life more difficult. When eighteen months had passed, I became pregnant again and we continued to bedshare.
When our son was two and I was massively pregnant, again, questions were asked about sleeping. Again, the thought of having to get up in the night was such an anathema to me that I didn’t even consider making a change. Also, our child was happy, healthy and very capable of making his needs and choices known. The ‘big bed’ was where he needed to be and we savoured our nights together, even though his activities meant we often woke in a kind of H shaped constellation. My partner made occasional hints about changing things, but became very emotional in response to any proposed actions pertaining to this. Working full-time and very long hours, he cherished his connection with his little boy in the dreamtime hours between darkness and daylight. We also came to realise that our arrangements facilitated easy travel; we had no need to lug the ‘lightweight’ monster of a travel cot around with us, and our son slept well even in strange surroundings, settling away from home into the home that is our togetherness.
Our daughter’s arrival was imminent, and so the moses basket dutifully reappeared along with a brand new mattress. A wise friend questioned ‘are you really going to use that?’ I thought we would need to; with our small bed and well snuggled in boy we’d need somewhere for the baby to at least start the night, wouldn’t we? I purchased a bed guard too then, just to be sure we had all bases covered. Family mentioned the ‘room’ again; yet we knew we needed to keep our closeness. Feeling alienation from the family space would be a sure-fire way of exacerbating what might already be a difficult transition into siblinghood for our son.
Then the tessellation and musical beds began. I wanted our daughter at my side and I wanted our son too. Our son clung to me and soon we were attempting to squeeze four people into a small standard double bed. Our daughter luxuriated in the cocoon I curled around her; my son limpet-like attached himself to my back and his feet, at a ninety degree angle to my partner, were extended to push his father across the space into a precarious and drafty dangling position in which he’d have to brace himself to stay on the bed at all!
It wasn’t working; something needed to give and my back was one of the things that protested as I frequented the chiropractor’s clinic complaining of twinges and twists. We were initially at a loss and all suffering, until we hit on the idea that we really weren’t using our space effectively. We have a spare room with a double bed and in the night my partner, when he’d reached his limit for clinging, would often retreat there, even though he found that bed uncomfortable and too soft. I on the other hand like that bed, so, after some thought and discussion, we ended up with the girls in one double bed and the boys in another. I would put our son to bed in the space he’d always been in, then his father would join him later. If he needed me in the night, I’d come in, or he’d join me, either way he got his comfort from his dad first, and this has done enormously beneficial things for the bond in their relationship. Family again thought this was a little unconventional, but it was working for us, so we carried on.
To our great surprise, at the age of two and a half, suddenly one evening when our son was struggling to find sleep in the family bed he asked to go into his own room. We hadn’t mentioned this to him at all and had thought he might spend a great deal longer sleeping with a parent. Hastily, his bed was made up and he’s slept in his own room each night ever since. I had thought that we’d need to go down a route of lengthy preparations, of talking about choices and explaining this room, ‘his space’ to him. I’d considered our shopping trip to choose bedding and wall stickers, or the need to encourage him back many times during nights of broken sleep; none of this has happened so far.
Our children to me are our greatest teachers and what I’ve learnt from this is that when a need is truly met, it is outgrown. Closeness in the early years is paramount and as great as the need for food, and our son has shown us that he feels secure enough to take a tiny step in independence: sleeping on his own. As I sit in the rocking chair we lovingly painted before he arrived, I nurse him, sometimes to sleep, and softly tell him of the dreams I had of a small boy who would inhabit the space that used to be my office; if only I’d known then that there was no hurry to make a ‘nursery’ for him. I tell him of how I showed him the moon and stars from this window when he was given a grand tour of the house on his first night at home, how this room has held clothes, books and toys, all the hopes of becoming, as he journeys through babyhood and infancy. I lift him, sometimes sleeping, sometimes wakeful into the bed his grandparents bought him, and wish him a good night of sleep.
Written by Alison Jones, LLL Oxfordshire, and first published in Breastfeeding Matters issue 222