“I love you mum” whispers my five-year-old son.
It’s 1:30 am. I thought I was being quiet. But, I must have roused him from his slumber. I have a sore throat. I couldn’t sleep.
“What’s that buddy?” I whisper back (even though I’m pretty sure I heard him the first time)
“Mum, I love you,” he whispers again as he wraps his little arms around my neck, squeezes me tight and falls back to sleep.
This is why we bedshare. Of all the reasons, if I had to choose one, this is it.
It’s not because breastsleeping mamas get the most sleep…although they do.
It’s not because it’s the easiest way for me to parent through the night…although it is.
It’s not because it’s the safest way for babies and children to sleep…although it is.
It’s not because a mother’s body regulates her baby’s physiology better than an incubator…although it does.
It’s not because it’s the way our social mammalian species is designed to sleep…although it is.
It’s not because babies and children sleep more and rouse less when they’re next to their parents…although they do.
It’s not because bedsharing supports full-term breastfeeding…although it does.
It’s not because babies cry less when they bedshare…although they do.
It’s not because intentional bedsharing protects against SIDS…although it does.
It’s not because touch supports optimal physical development in children…although it does.
It’s not because good science (the rare, unbiased sort of science) overwhelmingly supports the biological need to keep our babies and children close at night….although it does.
It’s how it makes me feel.
It’s how it makes my son feel.
Secure. Loved. Safe. Welcome. Family.
It’s how when we visit the planetarium and my son buys glow in the dark stars and without a second thought he sticks them to the walls in his “family bedroom”, not his own, because “that’s where we sleep, mum”.
It’s when a friend comes to visit and my then four-year-old proudly gives her a tour of his home and describes our bedroom as the “room where my family sleeps.”
It’s when I’m listening to a podcast in the car about cultural sleep patterns and I think my son is mesmerised by his maze book in the back seat, when he suddenly says, “Mum, do babies really sleep alone in cribs? Aren’t they lonely and scared?”
It’s these quiet sleepy moments. These moments that cement our relationship, deepen our bond and make our connection sacred.
The Japanese call that feeling ‘anshin’ to describe ‘soine’ or shared sleep, which is woven through the fabric of traditional family life. Anshin is the ‘feeling of contentment and relief or peace of the heart (not just body) in the state of being anshin’. The Japanese believe that soine and breastfeeding facilitate anshin for both babies and parents.
My family is immersed in feelings of anshin each and every night. As our collective sleep patterns have evolved, so too have our sleep associations; as much as he needs me, I need him too. I crave anshin.
These are the moments that some parents call “payday”. Payday may be a split second or an entire night when it comes to sleep – the moments like these that make the investment, the hard work, the lack of sleep, worth it.
Because, I’d be lying if I said bedsharing, especially through toddlerhood is always smooth sailing.
Bedsharing is also being kicked in the head by a toddler at 3 am.
It’s waking up with no covers and feeling freezing cold in the depths of winter.
It’s both my husband and me clinging to the edge of a king sized bed while our little guy starfishes in the middle.
It’s missing my husband’s embrace.
It’s waking with an impossibly sore shoulder morning after morning realising that I hadn’t moved all night as I lay in the genetically-imprinted cuddle curl position protecting my then-baby.
It’s repeating the mantra, this too shall pass. And then realising that it passes all too soon.
It’s facing all of these temporary obstacles and doing it anyway. Because anything that’s meaningful in life generally isn’t easy.
Sharing sleep is love in action.
It’s unconditional acceptance.
It’s trusting my instincts.
It’s surrendering to the unknown.
It’s process over product.
It’s an upfront investment.
It’s pouring into my family.
It’s about so much more than sleep location. It’s half my parenting journey and it’s not up for sale to the highest bidder. It’s not up for discussion with inquisitive friends or family members. It’s not up for debate with our doctor because it isn’t, in any way, shape or form a medical issue. It’s not a practice that has an expiry date.
It is one of the biggest blessings of parenthood and it’s to be celebrated.
Yet, when I started on this journey, I had no idea how long the trail was. It’s kind of daunting, isn’t it? I couldn’t imagine setting off on a hike without a trail map. And so, I share my story to light the path for those parents with babies who wonder what it will be like in years to come. I share my story because I wasted precious time wondering if I needed to do something to ensure that our son would move into his own room…one day.
And now, the irony is that one day, probably without warning, my son will want to sleep in his own bed. And when that day comes, I will have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, but I will celebrate the fact that he has had the freedom to come to that decision in his own time. On his own terms. I will celebrate the fact that his independence has been built on a solid foundation of love, trust, and compassion. But…that night is not tonight.
This night is ours and I will stay awake a little bit longer to soak in his littleness, to whisper back ‘I love you too buddy’, to feel gratitude for his presence, to experience anshin for the blessing this little soul illuminates my life with.
This post contains many references to what normal infant sleep is, but there is a lot of misunderstanding in western culture about what that is. The solitary crib-sleeping baby became normalised in the last 150 years and so we find ourselves in a position of needing to normalise normal again and simultaneously destabilize the notion that babies need isolation in order to sleep. I am launching a series of Good Science Guides soon that lay out peer-reviewed studies reviews that show why babies need their parents at nighttime, why night waking is normal, why nursing to sleep and through the night is normal and more.
In the meantime, here are my favourite infant and toddler sleep resources:
Mother-baby Behaviour Sleep Labaratory – Dr. James McKenna’s website
Baby Sleep Info Source – Dr. Helen Ball’s website
Evolutionary Parenting – Dr. Tracy Cassels’ wesbite
Sleeping with your baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping – Dr. James McKenna
Sweet Sleep, Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family – La Leche League International
Sleeping like a baby: Simple Sleep Solutions for Babies and Toddlers – Pinky McKay
The Gentle Sleep Book – Sarah Ockwell-Smith