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Confessions of a Co-Sleeper

Both of my daughters slept in my bed as infants, but I never mentioned it much. People look at you sideways when you start talking about a “family bed” and “co-sleeping.” 

Being considered a freak of nature or an unfit mother kept me quiet. Now a flurry of infant deaths, medical rulings and even a proposed law that would convict intoxicated co-sleepers as felons if their babies die have driven me deeper under the covers.

The truth is I think there are a lot of other parents hiding under there with me.

In the quest for rest, one sleeping method doesn’t fit all zzzz-deprived moms and dads.

When Parenting magazine examined the issue in a survey, only 11 percent of moms said they actually planned to co-sleep, but a whopping 42 percent ended up doing so once their babies arrived.

It’s not for everyone and it's far from perfect, but for our family, it worked. We all slept much better, not having to jump up to nurse or quiet a sobbing baby. We slept face-to-face in our king-sized bed, our breathing harmonized. I would wake up sometimes and lean into my newborn’s mouth just to make sure she was still breathing. Sometimes I just stared at her perfect little features.

But most of the time, I … slept. 

Blissful hours of rest, interrupted periodically by nursing. 

The baby never rolled off the bed or got wedged between the wall and the bed. Neither me nor my husband ever rolled on top of our daughters. On the contrary, we felt tuned in to their every move.

At the time, I was a big fan of parenting guru Dr. William Sears and his attachment parenting philosophy, which advocates early bonding experiences like co-sleeping and long-time breastfeeding. For those first few years of my daughters’ lives, I felt absolutely in sync with them, and I’m glad I did it. 

That’s why it’s so hard for me to reconcile my experience with what I’ve been reading lately.

As of Monday, at least 16 Milwaukee babies have died this year while sleeping with their mothers. The city's health department has become so concerned that it has waged an anti-bed-sharing campaign with ads and posters that depict a tombstone at the head of an adult bed and a baby sleeping next to a sharp knife. Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Randall) has proposed a bill that would make it a felony to harm or kill an infant by co-sleeping while intoxicated. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends against co-sleeping in an adult bed, citing the possibility of  suffocation, asphyxia, entrapment, falls and strangulation. It says this risk increases greatly if the parents are smokers, if a waterbed, sofa or armchair is used, when there are too many soft pillows and blankets on the bed, and when a parent has consumed alcohol. 

I would never suggest that someone drive a car after knocking back a few beers, and I wouldn’t recommend crawling into bed with a newborn after this, either. 

But does that mean that co-sleeping is wrong?

For some moms, sharing a bed isn’t an option. They may be light sleepers. They may find it too invasive and dangerous. They may worry about their kids never being able to sleep on their own. 

I suspect the norm isn’t fans like me or foes like these. Most parents are just trying to snag a few hours of uninterrupted sleep any way they can, whether that’s in separate cribs and beds or in one family bed. Every night brings a new challenge, and possibly a different solution.

It’s time that doctors and public policy acknowledge this reality of nighttime parenting styles. Let’s get beyond the scare tactics, the inconclusive studies and the obscure stats – and let's all get some sleep.