… no, I’m not talking about “that”. But now that I have your attention (and have you reminiscing about the late 90’s) let’s talk about the real matter at hand… the natural art of co-sleeping. What’s co-sleeping, you say? Well let me enlighten you. Co-sleeping is the loving act of “sharing sleep” with your child, meaning they sleep near you, as opposed to in a separate room alone. The manner in which you can co-sleep is dependent on what works best for your family. Many people “bed share” (a subset of co-sleeping in which baby sleeps in the same bed as the parents) while others simply bring the crib, basinet, pack in play, or wherever your baby sleeps, in the same room as the parents. Many people have very misconstrued ideas about co-sleeping often thinking it is detrimental for a variety of reasons but extensive research has shown that not only is this incorrect, but in fact co-sleeping is one of the best things you can do for your child when done safely!
Co-sleeping is especially beneficial for the nursing mother. Not only does it help you bond, it also helps establish a similar sleep cycle for mother and baby, it helps baby fall asleep faster and both mother and baby get more nighttime sleep, and it helps encourage and sustain the breastfeeding relationship. One of the best co-sleeping arrangements for the nursing duo is the crib in a side car position to the bed. It has all the benefits of co-sleeping while also the appeal of a more spacious set up with the crib acting as an extension of the bed.
The topic came up recently when I was scrolling through updates on Facebook and came across an old friend of mine asking a parenting question. I don’t pretend to be a parenting expert and I never give unsolicited advice. (I don’t feel like it’s my place as well as I am still learning and developing myself… plus, those people suck.) But, if someone asks me directly for advice or would like to know what worked for us, I freely give out that information. In the context of a conversation between two (or more) intelligent, questioning, sound minded, considerate adults, we should be able to share our opinions, experiences, thoughts, research, and empathy with one another. (Especially that last part… we all could use a little empathy at the end of a long day spent with a rambunctious toddler who emptied out a box of cereal all over the living room for the third time this week…)
The question this friend had was about how to handle night time with a baby that would throw fits when laid down in her crib. Just about every person (including the child’s pediatrician) suggested just letting her “cry it out.” Some even went so far as to say if it bothers you to hear your baby’s cry, try sitting outside while the baby is left unattended. Other’s suggested throwing back a beer to help sooth YOUR nerves while your baby “soothes” and “calms” itself to sleep… in the form of crying hysterically, that is. Another simply said, “Whatever you do, you can’t let them ‘win’.”
Now normally I would steer clear of these sorts of indirect conversations but this person is a good friend who asked for different opinions knowing there are different schools of thought on the matter. He had essentially received only one suggestion (in many interesting formats; see above paragraph) so I figured I might as well throw my two cents in… which ended up being more like ten dollars worth, but that’s neither here nor there. And now I have decided to share here with all of you as well just in case there are others out there who might benefit from hearing something “different.”
First things first, in my opinion I don’t think parenting is a competition where the parent OR the child wins OR loses. We are raising human beings, not playing a game. As difficult as it is sometimes, the point needs to be made that babies do not have the mental capacity to be malicious, despite many feeling otherwise which can lead to the notion that you need to “overpower” them as they are “taking advantage of you.” I mean really, c’mon… the kid can’t walk, talk, feed or clothe himself, keep from drooling or pooping on himself, or even sit up on his own… but he can try to control you with the power of his mind?! It sounds like a bad sci-fi movie to me… but, I digress…
As mammals (now the title is starting to make a little sense…) we are intended for close social interaction, physical contact, feelings of comfort, calmness, attachment, and love from those around us. Humans are actually the only land mammals that do not sleep (that is, choose not to sleep) in close proximity to their offspring. Mammals are meant to respond to their young when they are in any sort of distress or have a need (to the point that women in particular have increased amounts of stress hormones that are released upon hearing the cry of their offspring in order to instill a sense of panic and a need to react.) It is a survival instinct we were created with to help our species survive the test of time. (And it worked!)
If I may get a little nerdy on you right now, the linked article by Linda F. Palmer, DC entitled, “Bonding Matters…The Chemistry of Attachment” discusses the chemistry behind these survival instincts and explains them in great detail. (I find it fascinating.) She explains that the, “ingrained neural and hormonal interactions provided for parent and child” are “among the most powerful in nature.” She touches on everything from oxytocin and prolactin and their ability to help us bond, nurture, and feed our children to the permanent and damaging effects that the stress hormone cortisol has on children who do not receive regular responsive care.
Yes, you read that correctly. Extensive research has shown that children who are left to “cry it out” wind up suffering from permanent negative effects. Dr. Palmer continues, “Multiple psychology studies have demonstrated that, depending on the practices of the parents, the resulting high or low level of oxytocin will control the permanent organization of the stress-handling portion of the baby’s brain — promoting lasting ‘securely attached’ or ‘insecure’ characteristics in the adolescent and adult. Such insecure characteristics include anti-social behavior, aggression, difficulty forming lasting bonds with a mate, mental illness, and poor handling of stress.” The chronic cortisol elevations in infants who are left to “cry it out” have shown in biochemical studies to be associated with permanent brain changes that lead to elevated responses to stress throughout life, such as higher blood pressure and heart rate as well. Scary, right?!
The attached article, “Should We Leave Babies to Cry?” by Dr. Miriam Stoppard further discusses these facts citing that, “the prefrontal cortex (the frontal lobes), the part of the brain that exerts control over emotions, is virtually non-existent at birth” and therefore babies are unable to manage stress themselves. This is our job as the parent (I know, we have a lot of them.) These stress hormones remain low when responsive parents are caring for the baby, but when babies are left to “cry it out”, high levels of these stress hormones are released and actually dampen the formation of a healthy brain. Dr. Stoppard said it best, “The simple truth is that your baby doesn’t have the equipment, anatomical or physiological, to deal with distress, because that part of the brain that would help her cope doesn’t come on stream for another four to six months.” So the actual act of “training” your baby to sleep so early on is obsolete; they do not have the ability to be trained. By the time they are developmentally ready, they don’t need training. Dogs need training, humans need caring. That is unless your baby took on a career that required a new set of skills, such as welding… they might need training for that.
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Are you telling me I ruined my child?!’ Don’t fret. Of course I’m not saying you ruined your child. If your kid is still little, it’s not too late to start now. If they are grown up, then there are other ways to attach and build bonds. And while I believe that co-sleeping is the best way to sleep, we can’t fault people for following the norm. What I’m trying to do is reach the people who’s instincts are telling them there’s another way.
The care you give your child, particularly in these early months through the first year of life, will mold who they will become and how they will be able to manage and cope with stress through the rest of their life. (No pressure.) “Access to good experiences early on in life produces brains with more neural connections – more richly networked brains. With more connections there’s better brain performance and more flexibility to use particular areas of the brain” explains Dr. Stoppard. She also explains when babies feel pleasure, the chemicals released to create the feeling of happiness actually result in brain cell growth. How about that?! When you act in accordance to your natural instincts (which makes you feel happier) you encourage your child to feel happy and loved and by doing so, your baby’s body will then focus on growing and developing their brain. Win-win for everyone!
I’m sure some of you are wondering, “if this is truly the case, why has there been such a decline in the natural act of co-sleeping then?” In the linked article, “Should I Let My Baby Sleep with Me” by Aletha Solter, Ph.D., Dr. Solter discusses this in detail, citing the many outside influences that contributed to such a decline including religion and industrialization. She quotes Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, who wrote: “It is a primitive need of the child to have close and warm contact with another person’s body while falling asleep…. The infant’s biological need for the caretaking adult’s constant presence is disregarded in our Western culture, and children are exposed to long hours of solitude owing to the misconception that it is healthy for the young to sleep … alone.” This primitive need dates back to hunter gatherer times when children possessed this need to be close to others as a survival instinct, and though we have culturally advanced since then, our genetic makeup is still the same. (I know we have a couple Sheldon Cooper’s out there who think they have evolved past fellow man, but trust me, you haven’t… and this is no “bazinga.”)
Fact of the matter is that if you parent in accordance to your instincts, attending to your child consistently, timely, and in a loving manner, your child will thrive and become an independent, intelligent, confident, loving, and attached person. I know many think that if you attend to your child so much it will spoil them and they will never be able to get themselves to sleep on their own… this has absolutely been proven false. Here’s the thing… children develop and naturally progress of their own accord; they always have, that is how we were created. You don’t need to force children to be independent; they outgrow these early needs as they are intended to. Because really ask yourself, when was the last time you met a 12 year old that still needed to be rocked and nursed to sleep??
I know many people feel differently than we do but we just try to follow our intuition and do what feels natural and right to us. A good example of the opposite of this would be the woman mentioning needing to sit outside on the porch while her baby cried himself to sleep because she couldn’t stand it… if it doesn’t feel right (meaning you feel uncomfortable or like you are doing something wrong) we assume it is not right and in turn, try and do what feels natural to us. The truth is this woman felt uncomfortable because she was supposed to feel uncomfortable because if she didn’t ever feel that sting of panic or unease, that baby would never get attended to, his needs wouldn’t be met, and eventually he would pass away and the species would not survive. It is all purposeful, so we just choose to react according to that truth knowing that humans survived thousands of years guided by that.
If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you take this… your baby is only a baby once. They aren’t little forever and you never get this chance again. Things won’t always be so difficult, you won’t always run on such little sleep, you won’t always be so worried and overwhelmed. These moments go by so quickly yet they are so very important. We are tired now; backs aching from carrying the baby, feet sore from pacing the halls, minds stretched with worry and questions… but this is fleeting. Your actions and their effects on your baby are forever, so keep trying your best, ask questions, research options, and push the norm. We aren’t perfect but our love is evident and pure and it shows through the choices we make.
For more information on naturally minded parenting and co-sleeping, I highly suggest visiting the world renowned Dr. Sears website and look up the many articles written specifically on co-sleeping. Another great source of information is the talented Mayim Bialik on her blog at Kveller or when she guest writes for TodayMoms.