“Just Molly and me, and baby makes three, we’re so happy in my blue heaven.” Those lyrics from an old song called “My Blue Heaven”, came to mind recently when a distraught father talked to me about his fifteen month old son sleeping in bed between his wife and himself. It is undoubtedly true that baby often makes three, but it is not always true that it makes for blue – or any other color – heaven. Especially when that third – baby – is in bed with sleep deprived parents who need their sleep.
Co-sleeping, as it is sometimes called, is a choice made by some families, and many pros and cons have been offered about that. In some cultures babies and children sleeping in the same bed as parents happens as a matter of course. Often, children having their own rooms, or even beds, are an economic reality rather than anything having to do with philosophy, and cultural practices may have their origins in just such reality.
On the other hand, it is often those sleep deprived parents who in desperation take baby into bed with them. The tired father who told me his story is a medical resident who, as he said meaningfully, has to get some sleep. He reported that from two weeks of age, the baby screamed when put down in his crib. No matter what they did, his mom and dad couldn’t comfort him as long as he was in the crib.
Dad sadly related what they had been told not to do: don’t put the baby down on his stomach, and DON’T take him into your bed with you. They were advised to try the “cry it out” method, but mom wouldn’t go for that. Finally, in despair they took the baby into bed with them – which seemed to suit him just fine. Now at fifteen months, Dad is tired of having little feet poke him in the eye, and the parents are still confronted with the question of how to get him to start sleeping in his own crib.
This is a very familiar story. The first few months of a newborns life can be stressful for parents. The infant is becoming adjusted to life outside the womb and all the life systems – breathing, eating, sleeping – are gradually becoming regulated. It takes a while for the baby’s own patterns to start to emerge, and even longer to begin to shape them into some sort of workable schedule. In the meantime, new parents watch their baby and try to figure out what everything means.
The key is to try to get to know your own baby. But sometimes parental anxieties – and sleepless nights – makes that difficult to do. It is so easy immediately to feel that something must be wrong if you don’t seem able to comfort your baby, or his crying seems to go on forever – or baby screams whenever you put him down in his crib. Babies eventually do find ways to soothe themselves, but sometimes our own anxiety and fatigue make it too hard to wait for that to happen.
There are also babies who are not self-soothers, and often it takes some creative experimentation to find out how we can help without creating some other potential difficulty for the future. Baby-in-the-bed is a case in point. One of the things about child-rearing is that what may seem like an easy solution to one immediate situation turns out to create its own challenges at some future time.
“Baby-in- the-bed” is sometimes one of those solutions. People often get emotional about this subject, at times even judgmental. Just as in other cultures it is simply the way it is done, attitudes in our culture differ. Americans believe in individualism, standing on your own two feet, and being independent. Value is placed on children’s ability to play on their own, sleep on their own, and, if possible, have a room of their own. But children don’t necessarily start out that way. Many parents have reported their children saying in protest, “You each have someone to sleep with, why do I have to sleep by myself?”
It is not at all strange that a child would rather sleep with his parents, or have a parent with him in the room when he goes to sleep. As a child gets beyond babyhood there also may be added the wish to get between mom and dad – maybe having one or the other all to himself. Besides, who wants to go to sleep when mom and dad are still up and about.
One can only speculate about why the fifteen month old in this story had such a hard time being put down in the crib as a newborn. But whatever the reason, getting him into his own bed now will also have to be a process that will take time, since of course he is protesting this ejection from such a warm, cozy spot. Who wouldn’t protest? Once again, it will take patience and perseverance, which means letting him know his parents’ expectations, and following consistently whatever plan they decide on.
My thoughts go to another song most parents know. “There were three in the bed, and the little one said, ‘roll over, roll over’. So they all rolled over and one fell out – “
But which one will fall out?