I have thus far, avoided this topic on my blog because, turns out, co-sleeping is a pretty contentious parenting practice. Many of us co-sleep with our kids. Some of us do this openly; some do it defiantly, as a counter-culture, kid-centered practice; some of us don’t want to get the grief that comes from admitting our kids sleep with us. Some of us have the support of our pediatricians; some of us don’t. Some of us planned to co-sleep; some of us co-sleep as a default, because we’ve tried everything else and nothing worked. In any case, this blog isn’t intended to serve as a source of debate. If you co-sleep, feel free to share your experiences. If you don’t, that is a very fine choice, well supported by your local pediatrician, and I’m glad you were able to find a solution that works for your family. I know the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against co-sleeping, and that there are folks that connect co-sleeping with small children to an increased risk of SIDS. I consider myself to be a thoughtful parent who has certainly researched the topic carefully and I’m here to share our co-sleeping journey.
Moving on from my massive disclaimer…
My husband and I researched co-sleeping as an option prior to the arrival of our little one. Like most moms, having a gripping fear of SIDS, I felt strongly that I wanted to be able to have our little one near to me at night so I could easily check on her in a half-groggy state rather than wearing a path between my bed and her crib. So we planned to put our little one in a separate, bassinet style co-sleeper that attached to our bed for easy transfer of our daughter once she nursed to sleep. Naps would take place in her crib. This was the plan.
Then we had our daughter, V. I had a relatively smooth labor that went awry after delivery, as I hemorrhaged and bled out to the point where my blood pressure was dangerously low. I was highly drugged in order for them to make quick repairs and given a shot of something to get my heart pumping. My husband, M, was with our daughter in the NICU as she was getting an IV of antibiotics to deal with some issues that happened during labor. My mom was in the room with me, arms wrapped tightly around me to keep me from vibrating off of the table as I was so shaky with the epidural drugs and the blood loss that I could not get control of my body. Eventually, my husband came back to check on me, switched spots with my mom, and I fell, exhausted, asleep in his arms, until I woke up 4 hours later, desperately longing to hold my little girl.
Exhausted but yearning for my sweet baby, I was wheeled to the NICU, where M and I picked up our little gal. The NICU nurse informed us that she had quite a set of lungs! Being a rather outspoken couple ourselves, we giggled somewhat proudly and eagerly drank in the experience of being together as a family (in a non-emergency state) for the first time. Little did we know that nurse’s statement foreshadowed our sleeping experiences for the next….well, still counting!
When we finally arrived in our mother-baby room, it was 5 am. At 6 am, the procession started. Doctors, nurses, hospital photographers, pediatricians, NICU nurses, family, food service delivery folks, kept an ongoing stream through our room for the entire day. It appears that when you are on the verge of a blood transfusion and your child is receiving a course of antibiotics, that there is little rest to be had in a hospital. Everyone is constantly checking. By the end of the day, after being up for pretty much 40+ hours, and pushing an 8lb 9oz kid out of my body, I was depleted. And our little one kept screaming. My milk supply was low, and she was hungry. And she let us know. At the recommendation of the nurses, despite our misgivings, I was supplementing V with formula by dripping it onto my breast, so at least she would get something. Then I would let her finish the bottle. It was a nursing and sleeping nightmare. Finally, with the 6 am hour approaching, we sent her down to the nursery, so I could get an hour or so of sleep before I collapsed.
About 20 minutes later (it felt like), her bassinet came wheeling back into the room. With V still screaming. They sent her back. I have yet to hear another parent tell me that their child was sent back from the nursery for screaming. This means that despite the experienced care of multiple pediatric nurses, my child was still inconsolable.
Eventually, exhausted after a longer than normal hospital stay, with constant sleep interruptions, we took our little baggage and went home bleary-eyed and in love with our little girl. But no matter how much love you have for your child, there comes a point, usually when your body is still traumatized by labor and the sleep deprivation that accompanies it, when you just need some sleep. A week later, V would still sleep no longer than 10-15 minutes anywhere but on my person, occasionally in M’s arms or in the presence of company, or sometimes, fully supervised on her Boppy pillow. The 10-15 minute interval was when we actually were able to get her physically in her crib, rather than to have the mission aborted at the treacherous inch above the co-sleeper or crib mattress. We were getting desperate. We called our friend Megan, at the time, a veteran mother of 3 (now it is 4) for some advice. “Learn to side-nurse and take her to bed with you,” said Megan. After reading the factors that increase the risk of SIDS with co-sleeping, (being overweight, drinking, being heavy sleepers), and determining that none of these factors applied to us, we hesitantly and desperately gave it a try. Finally, FINALLY, V slept. She slept most of the night, waking up once or twice to nurse. It was heaven.
We did not immediately succumb to the heavenly lull of co-sleeping sleep, though. No, we fought to get our kiddo to sleep on her own. We watched the “Happiest Baby on the Block” and shushed, swaddled and rocked her. I read every baby book from “The Baby Whisperer,” to “The No-Cry Sleep Solution,” to Kim West’s sleep books, to finally find a little comfort and support from the Sears’ parenting series, which advocates co-sleeping as an option. We tried a strict sleep and naptime schedule, endless rocking, music, white noise, walking to no avail.
In the meantime, we packed up our house and moved out of state as my husband took a job in West Virginia. Between the ongoing construction on new townhomes in our neighborhood, frequent though enjoyable visits from family and friends, and the utter exhaustion we encountered as new parents unpacking a home far away from our support network, we had our share of challenges. We soldiered on, trying various methods, generally a relaxed variation of the cry it out fare, with little success. I admit I had little stomach for the crying it out. V screamed louder and longer. She threw up. One or the other of us would cave after less than 5 minutes. One afternoon, after spending two weeks of days trying to get my little gal on a nap schedule where she would nap, then nurse, (so as to separate the eating-sleeping connection per the “experts”) I left my baby in the crib to cry, out of pure frustration. For five minutes. Hearing the volume ramp up, my frustration finally gave way to agonizing guilt as I swung the door back open to find my precious one cowering in the crib, heartbroken. Looking at her face, I realized this solution was just not for us. It may work for others, but for our relationship, it felt devastating. V confirmed this feeling, as she clung to me with anxiety, nursing constantly for the remainder of the day.
So we were a co-sleeping family…for the most part. We had our moments where V started to sleep for a half-hour, an hour, a rare and glorious two hours in the crib. These moments were punctuated with periods where we had guests in our house, and the schedule went to heck. Then my father-in-law fell gravely ill and we fell back into exclusive co-sleeping during our frequent out-of-state travels as he went through a long and precarious recovery. And we went through yet another, this time, local move.
We had fought it, listened to all the voices challenging co-sleeping as a parental practice, and ultimately, chose sleep and co-sleeping to survive. V is a 22 month old partial co-sleeper now. We recently bought her a “big girl” bed which is still in our room to help us deal with her semi-frequent wakings. Our current goal is to keep V in her bed and to have my husband assume more of the night shifts so we can break the nighttime nursing dependence. We have gotten a few nights where I have been able to take the bedtime and 5-6 am shift while M handles the in between waking. We have gotten a handful of nights where V has slept through from 8:30 pm to 5am and a smattering of 8:30 pm to 2 or 3 am nights. On those nights when V sleeps “through” to 5 or 6 am and I wake at that time to snuggle in with her on her mattress for her nursing requests, I find I am grateful for that morning cuddle. Even though it has seemed like a long and sometimes impossible situation, co-sleeping means snuggling through the night, easy nursing, smelling the smell of V’s sweet baby head, feeling her little arm thrown over mine or her nestling into one of us in the wee hours. Those moments are ones we’ll remember when the sleep struggles are past. In the meantime, we cope as we go, and we have learned not to judge parents for whatever sleep practices allow them to function. Except to feel a little exasperated at those folks who smugly say…”my daughter or son slept through the night at 6 weeks, 2 months, 5 months…” To those folks, I parry, “just wait for your next one…”
Linking up with Shell at Things I Can’t Say for Pour Your Heart Out Wednesdays.