In recent years, sleeping with a baby has become a controversial issue, particularly in the United States. This happened largely as a result of the publication by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of two reports – the first in 1999 and the second in 2002 – which, for reasons of safety, recommended against placing a baby in an adult bed. The second report prompted Mothering Magazine to devote an entire issue to the subject.1
Bed sharing isn’t controversial for us: our daughter, Alice, who is now nearly 11 months old, sleeps in our bed at night, and she takes her day naps in our bed, sometimes with her mother, Nina, and sometimes by herself. It is one of her favorite play spaces and, inasmuch as she spends a good deal of her waking time on the bed without a nappy, she has indelibly marked it as her territory in other ways. For all intents and purposes, our bed is Alice’s too.
This wasn’t always the case though. While we never had concerns related to the safety of the practice (in fact we believe that, provided the proper precautions are taken, Alice is safer in our bed than she would be in her own2), we have had other issues with it – issues on which our views have occasionally diverged. Bed sharing is one area in particular where, in my experience, father, mother and baby often disagree: mother and baby want baby in the bed; father doesn’t. Nina and I have never disagreed about having Alice sleep in our bedroom (co- sleeping), but we have about having her sleep in our bed (bed sharing). So too has Alice. Our current sleeping arrangement, then, is the outcome of the past 11 months of our experience of co- sleeping, a compromise of sorts that takes into account Nina’s and my needs and wishes and, most importantly, those of Alice. We have reconfigured it a number of times since Alice’s birth, and I have no doubt we will do so again. What we won’t change, though, is our commitment to having her with us at night, if that is what she chooses.
Alice is our first child, and so we had little experience on which to base any decision as to sleeping arrangements after she was born. While our home has a room that could have served as a nursery, we were never willing to contemplate having Alice sleep there. Neither of us had, as children, any experience of bed sharing, and only two of our friends with families slept with their children. But as Nina’s belly grew, so too did our commitment to so- called ‘attachment parenting’ and with it the idea of the family bed. Nina in particular was wedded to this, and insisted that we buy a king- size bed; I was perhaps a little more equivocal, but was happy to give it a try.
We had planned a home birth for Alice but, characteristically, she decided to do things her way. In the third trimester, she settled into a breech position and there, despite our attempts to convince her that head- down was better, she remained. We were fortunate in having an obstetrician who would deliver a breech baby, but it wasn’t to be, and Alice was born by caesarean section. We were disappointed, but it made us even more determined to do whatever we could to make her early experience of the world one of deep nurture. Keeping her with us as much as possible was one way of doing this: her first night in hospital she slept cradled in the crook of my arm; after that she was in our bed, first in hospital (much to the disapproval of some of the midwives), and then at home. That was how things were for her first three months. Nights were mostly straightforward: Alice would go off to sleep through a combination of feeding and rocking – the feeding with Nina and the rocking with me – and would sleep, generally wrapped, on her own little mattress (so she could be tucked in), between the two of us. It was, in effect, a bed within a bed – not, in retrospect, bed sharing in the classical sense, but a good approximation, and initially it seemed to work, for Nina and Alice at least.
For me, these three months were a mixed bag. I was certainly happy to have Alice in the bed with us. I didn’t always sleep well but, more often than not, this was because I would lie awake for hours watching her, listening to her breathing, occasionally taking her little hand or offering her a finger which she would clutch in her sleep, or placing a hand lightly on her, to help her settle. These were precious moments. And I could, for the most part, deal with the lost sleep: I’m lucky not to have an employer; my hours are flexible; and I can work from home. What I did miss though, very soon, was Nina. The aphorism ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’ is only too true: sharing our bed with Alice necessarily meant giving up much of the physical intimacy that we value so highly in our relationship. This is not just sex. In many ways, sex is the easy part: if the energy, the desire, and the opportunity (none of which come easy with a baby) are there, there are many places other than the bed to have sex. No, it’s the close physical intimacy that comes with sleeping with someone you love. I missed it. And although Nina’s loyalties were inevitably divided, she did too. For both of us, it’s always been an important pillar of our marriage, and it’s difficult to find substitutes. What’s more, the significance of having to give this up is probably even greater as our relationship has struggled to redefine itself in response to the demands of parenthood.
When Alice was about 14 weeks old, we moved her out of our bed into first, a bassinet, then a cot, then a portacot, each of which we placed close by Nina’s side of the bed. Her sleep had become increasingly restless, and we were curious to see if giving her her own space mightn’t work better for her. No less important, I wanted our bed back, at least for a good part of the night. Alice didn’t object, and Nina and I had some time together. For awhile, Alice seemed to sleep more restfully, and she started sleeping for longer stretches between feeds. What we now view as a meaningless ‘goal’ – ‘sleeping through the night’ – seemed to be within reach. Not so. Our Alice had a different agenda: she wanted to be back in our bed.
And back she came, not all at once, but gradually. It took her about three months in all. For the first several weeks, she slept in her own bed for the entire night, seemingly quite happily. Then she gradually worked her way back into our bed for the last part of the night, simply by refusing to resettle in her own. Having established a foothold, she then did the same thing for the middle part of the night. And so on. When we resisted, Alice would just increase the frequency of her night wakings, and the duration of her feeds. She did it with all the finesse of someone experienced in guerrilla warfare, and here she was, not even six months old. Eventually, she would only settle in her own bed when she first went to sleep – this we tried to preserve both for reasons of safety (we would have our dinner then, and we didn’t want to leave her alone in our bed), and because it gave us at least some time together when we first came to bed. But eventually it crumbled too. She was back, for the entire night. While she would still wake frequently, the feed needed to put her back to sleep was a comforting five or 10 minute nibble rather than a 30 or 45 minute marathon, with Nina only having to roll on her side to do it. This was true bed sharing and, for Nina and Alice, it worked.
Once again, for me, it met with mixed reviews. Part of me was happy to have Alice back, if that was what she wanted. But my alone time with Nina was gone, this time really gone – with Nina and Alice now effectively sleeping as one, I felt well and truly sidelined. I also found sleeping restfully difficult. For several weeks I spent the night in a separate room, generally joining the two of them in the early hours of the morning. Eventually, having caught up on some sleep, I moved back to the family bed, which is where I am now, happily so. In an effort to make it work better, we’ve reconfigured things a little: we now have two beds pushed together – a single bed, which tends to be mine, and our king- size bed, which is Nina’s and Alice’s; and we have separate bedclothes for each. So while we’re all together, the pieces are separate. This seems to work better for everyone: we all sleep well; Nina and Alice can do their thing without disturbing me; and we all have the space to be alone or together, in whatever permutation we choose.
I can understand why having a baby in the bed is difficult for many fathers. Of the many domains which a man either has to give up or renegotiate with the arrival of a child, the bed he shares with his partner is a big one, both symbolically and in fact, and neither his innate gender- based proclivities nor his cultural conditioning make it any easier. In today’s society there are many roles a father might – subject to the obvious constraints – choose to adopt, from ‘stay- at- home’ dad at one end of the spectrum to ‘absentee’ dad at the other. While a mother’s role is relatively well defined, especially if she is breast- feeding, a father’s is not: he can, to a large extent, make it up as he goes.
Bed sharing is such a choice. I have chosen to do it, and now I wouldn’t have it any other way. The times I spend with Alice in our bed, especially at bedtime and in the morning, are precious beyond measure. A regular part of her bedtime ritual is now a rollick with me on the bed after her bath, and frequently she also insists that I snuggle up with her and Nina as she goes to sleep. In the morning, the first thing she does when she wakes is to come and find me, wherever I am in the bed – the sight of her little face peering at me to see if I’m awake, a smile from ear to ear, one hand reaching out to touch me, is permanently imprinted in my heart. And even now, I will often lie awake watching her sleep, content in the knowledge that she is there, with us, safe, and sleeping peacefully. Yes, I have needs, both physical and emotional, which are necessarily compromised by her being in our bed, but I can work with that. For Alice, to use William Sears’ words, is “a little person with big needs”,3 and watching this jolly little bundle tells me I’m right to put those needs first, particularly at this stage of her life.
Incidentally, the bassinet has been returned to my aunt, the cot sold, and the portacot is for sale, and we’re now thinking of having a second child.
1 ‘Sleeping With Your Baby—The World’s Top Scientists Speak Out’, Mothering Magazine (Sept/Oct 2002)
2 Twice as safe, in fact. See ‘Co- sleeping Is Twice As Safe’, Mothering Magazine (Sept/Oct 2002)
3 William and Martha Sears, The Baby Book, p. 310