Ask people what comes to mind when they imagine a family that sleeps all together in one room, and you basically get three images. Some envision a family living in a foreign country. Others picture the poverty-stricken – those reduced to sleeping together because of their financial woes. Still others see a post-hippie, super-alternative type of family. You know, fringe types who are quite possibly feeding magic brownies to their toddlers.
Almost no one pictures a perfectly ordinary, middle class suburban American family. But guess what? We’re out there.
I understand these stereotypes. That’s pretty much what I pictured for 30+ years of my life. Co-sleeping is such a foreign concept to middle class America. Most of us were raised as independent sleepers. We had our own rooms (or at least our own beds), and we were expected to sleep in them. Of course, bad dreams or illness sometimes trumped that, but most of our childhood sleeping experiences were solitary ones.
Our parents were only doing what their parents had done before them. In this culture, where independence is so highly valued, it seems to make sense to foster that independence in our kids right from the get-go. It’s been done for so many years, and been portrayed by so many books and t.v. shows, that independent sleeping now permeates our culture. It is a given; most of us don’t even think to question it, much less entertain alternatives. In fact, the “experts” in child rearing actively discourage us from coddling our kids by letting them sleep anywhere near us.
So it can be a bit of a shock to learn that there is a quiet but growing movement that supports the idea of families sleeping together. And it turns out that many of these family co-sleepers aren’t located abroad, in financial straits, or living la vida loca. Instead, this is a group of ordinary people who have started listening to their instincts, and then checked out the research to see if they’ve got a scientific leg to stand on.
And it turns out they do. More and more research is coming to light in support of co-sleeping. The benefit to infants is already so well-documented that it’s surprising how many people haven’t heard about it. But there’s also research that supports the idea of continuing co-sleeping past infancy and into childhood. The tide is beginning to turn.
But none of us needs the research, not really. Not if we take a moment and transport ourselves back to our own childhood. Do you remember waking up in the middle of the night? Even with a night light, the room was ominously dark. The house was eerily quiet – except for alarming, inexplicable noises that you never noticed during the day. Your parents were asleep, and the deep magic of their all-powerful presence was tangibly weakened. Suddenly, it was very possible that all sorts of horrible creatures were lurking just outside your door, waiting to GET you.
More than anything else, what did you long for in those moments? To crawl into bed next to Mom or Dad, right? To feel their warmth, and know deep within your bones that you were Safe with a capital S. So you would leap from your bed (as far as possible to escape the monsters underneath), and dash from your bedroom, down the hall, and into the protection of your parents’ space. You would burrow under the covers and wait for your racing pulse to settle, grateful that once again you managed to outrun the spectres who were surely less than a breath behind you during that terrifying nocturnal race.
Child psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg terms early childhood the “magic years”. She goes on to describe how small children view the world as strongly magical. To a young child, it is quite possible that a vacuum may come to life and eat you if you’re not careful. Or that you just might slide right down the drain if you don’t hop out of the tub before the water is let out. Magical thinking explains why the childhood fears of monsters and ghosts are so common. As children move into the second half of their childhood, their magical thinking diminishes and eventually disappears. Once this happens, they no longer experience such an intense need to sleep in close proximity to their parents – those magical, powerful guardians whose mere presence banishes all evil. They know with greater certainty that there’s nothing under the bed but shoes and the odd potato chip, that the closet simply won’t open of its own accord to release a bloodthirsty zombie, and that sometimes a quiet, solitary room is preferable to Dad’s incessant snoring.
The best thing is, this shift happens naturally. When we allow children to outgrow their need for us in their own time, the transition from our beds to theirs is simple. It’s only when we ask kids who are still victims of their own magical thinking to abandon their talisman prematurely that we run into trouble.
Human beings are hard-wired to achieve independence. We see it in the baby determined to crawl, the toddler intent upon dressing herself, and the youth working diligently to ride a two-wheeler. It’s the natural order of things. And it’s the natural order for sleeping. But you don’t need to take my word for it. Just ask the child inside of yourself.
For an interesting related article check out Peter Gray’s “Why Young Children Protest Bedtime: A Story of Evolutionary Mismatch.
To read about our family’s experience with co-sleeping, click here.