Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Family, Bed

Family, Bed
Andria Brown

I love sleep. I love it the way other people love food or wine or impractical shoes. When I was debating whether or not I wanted to get pregnant, my foremost anxiety was the unavoidable loss of four-hour naps and sleep-in Saturdays. In the end, some overwhelming biological impulse took over and quelled my selfish slumber concerns, but I still consider a good night’s sleep one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed on humanity.

Because I have such a deep and abiding passion for sleep, it only seems natural to do whatever I can to give my daughter the healthy rest she needs. This is how she came into our bed, cuddling on or beside us, fitting into our nightlife like she’d been there all along.

At first, people were charmed by our sleep situation. Friends and family thought it was sweet that we were forming such a close bond, and even those that thought it was a little unusual had to admit the practicality of keeping a newborn within arm’s reach throughout those wakeful early nights. But now that she’s a year old, we’ve repeatedly heard that it’s time to “train” our baby to sleep on her own. The recommended methods vary, but they all involve putting her in a crib and leaving the room. While I appreciate the good intentions of the people who want us to have more time to ourselves, or sincerely believe that it’s in Meredith’s best interest, I’m simply not going to do it. It works for some people, but it’s not for us. I’m happy with our sleep situation, despite all of their earnest protests, which I am generally too polite to counter in person but can’t resist dissecting in print...

“It’s not safe to sleep with a baby!”

From the very beginning, sleeping with our baby seemed like the safest thing to do. In those panicky early weeks, we slept intermittently but confidently, feeling her unpredictable newborn breaths coaxed along by two strong sets of lungs. As she got older and could move around, making sure she was clear of blankets or a comfortable temperature was as easy as opening an eye or reaching out a hand.

Now that the risk of SIDS has dropped from our daily concerns, we worry about outside dangers – fire, carbon monoxide, sociopathic masked gunmen crazy enough to approach our gigantic dog, etc. Sleeping beside our baby means never fearing that something could get to her before we could.

“Doesn’t she keep you awake?”

I’m a happily nursing mother, but there simply was no way that I was going to sign up for exclusive night-feeding duty if it entailed getting out of bed. One of the giant perks of breastfeeding is not having to prepare food, and I wasn’t going to spoil that saved effort by hauling myself into another room multiple times a night. Once I mastered the side-lying nursing position, I was one well-rested mama. Of course, just like almost every other baby, Meredith has never stayed in one sleep phase for very long. Just when I thought she was consistently sleeping through the night, she started teething. Or crawling. Or walking. Or teething again. Whatever milestone was coming up, it meant restless nights. There was a period (just before she learned to crawl, sit up and stand in the same weekend) when she was nursing every two hours, twenty-four hours a day. It was one of the hardest stages of her life so far, and it wore me out, but if we hadn’t been co-sleeping, it may have destroyed me.

“She has to get used to the crib sometime.”

I seem to have produced a baby who simply can’t cope with the crib. She doesn’t like it when she’s awake, and she sure as heck won’t tolerate it when she’s tired or even completely asleep. I guess something about being surrounded by bars is troubling to her. Funny that. Even if she could stand the crib, we wouldn’t be able to get her to sleep in it because she wakes up, mad as medieval hell, the moment her body gets within six inches of the miniature mattress. People assure us that the screaming eventually stops, but I don’t think they’ve met my kid. When I’ve set her in the crib out of sheer muscle fatigue, she throws herself at the bars, moaning “mamamamamamaaaa” and crying real tears, tossing her head around until it bangs into something and then getting even more upset. And this all happens in the first 60 seconds. I can’t imagine what would happen after five minutes, but I have a feeling it would involve my heart rupturing. So we’ve decided to skip the crib completely. Wait, strike that, we actually use the crib every night – as a guard rail next to our bed.

“Just ignore her for awhile and she’ll be fine.”

I can’t help but believe that, however young she is, my baby has the same basic feelings as an adult. And I would never leave a distraught, incapacitated adult to cry alone in a dark room. “Sorry, Grandma, Gilmore Girls is on. I’ll be with you in a minute. And could you keep it down, please? Kirk is being wacky.”

It’s also hard for me to accept the idea that my daughter benefits from having a hissyfit before bed. As it is, there are at least a dozen times a day when she bursts into tears. She is, to be generously euphemistic, very in touch with her feelings. Anything sets her off, from an unexpected head bonk to an overly friendly supermarket cashier. I’ve accepted that she cries, that it’s her way of venting frustration or confusion or sadness or pain, and I’ve accepted that I can’t always prevent her tears. But when I can, I do. And I don’t see why the experience of going to sleep – sweet, precious, delicious sleep – should be something that causes her anguish. I love going to bed, and I want her to love it, too.

“She needs to learn independence.”

She’s two feet tall, can’t speak English and has only a tenuous grasp on the concept of gravity. In what way is she supposed to be independent? I don’t plan to co-sleep forever, but I also don’t plan to throw my kid into a sleeping arrangement she’s not ready to handle. She’ll be big enough for her own bed soon (probably sooner than most babies, because she’s already used to sleeping in a real bed), big enough to understand that we’re just a room away, big enough to tell us clearly when she’s scared or hurt or in the middle of a nightmare. In the meantime, I feel like we’re teaching her to feel safe and loved and secure. I believe independence is fostered, not forced.

“It’s bad for your marriage.”

I’m pretty sure this is just a thinly-veiled attempt to nose around our sex lives, so it doesn’t really deserve a response, but I’m going to throw one out there anyway. I don’t know of a single marriage that hasn’t been strained by the arrival of a baby, and ours is no different. Like many mamas, I’ve been frustrated by the unequal amount of time and energy that I’ve put into keeping our daughter happy and healthy. I know that my husband loves the baby, but his job doesn’t allow him to spend the same hours with her that I do. Not during the day, anyway. Sleeping together helps us make sure that, no matter how hectic his work day may be, Jeff gets to spend one long stretch of time cuddled up with his daughter, and I rest better with the burden of babyminding shared between us. Our days are often chaotic, but at night, when we’re all together in bed, we’re a peaceful, balanced family.

“You need time to yourself or you’ll resent the baby.”

Well, this is true. I do need time to myself. But I need it during the day, when I’ve got stuff to do. At night, I need to rest and recharge, and often the only validation I get after a long, loud, bone-meltingly stressful day is to see my daughter sleeping contentedly at my side. She is a blazing comet all day long, but when she sleeps, she’s the milky moon. How could I resent an ounce of her when she unconsciously reaches out and clutches my finger or rubs her soft, bath-warm head against my shoulder? Sometimes, as we’re settling down to sleep, she pops herself off the breast and flops over with this sigh that seems to mean, “Awesome. Good night.” That sigh won’t happen forever, and I’m going to enjoy it while I can.

I don’t know, maybe it’s my natural cynicism, or whatever it is that makes me bypass the Gerber and Pampers aisle like it’s not even there, but I can’t just accept that “the way things are done” is the best way to do things. So when someone tells me that I have to make my daughter a little miserable just to get her to sleep, my whole maternal being rebels. What do they think will happen if we follow our instincts instead of the social norm? Are they honestly afraid that we’ll have my daughter hop into bed with us when she gets home from prom? Is it such a radical idea that she’ll transition into her own bed when she’s ready, with a minimum of tears and trauma for us all?

These are all questions worth answering, but right now, I’m going to bed. Our beautiful, beatific, baby-scented bed.

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