Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Confessions of an Accidental Bed Sharer

Peggy O’Mara has another sharp editorial in the current issue of Mothering magazine, this time on New York’s public health campaign against what they call "co-sleeping"--though as Peggy points out, "co-sleeping" just means sleeping close to your babe, be it in bed or separate bassinet. New York state is really campaigning against bed sharing specifically.

"Co-sleeping is risky," says the state of New York. "If an adult or child rolls over on a baby, the baby can be hurt or even suffocated. Sleeping with a child can be dangerous, especially if you drink, use drugs, are overweight, or sleep on a couch."

Sounds fearful, but will the fear help anyone? When Liko was born, I had never heard of the terms “cosleeping,” “bed sharing,” or “family bed,” and I certainly had no opinions about the subject. I assumed we would do what I imagined most parents do: move him into his own crib at around six weeks and into his own room at some reasonable point thereafter.

Ha ha ha! Fate makes monkeys of us all. It’s four years later, and Liko is still in bed with us. Am I happy with this situation? Not really. Given my druthers, he’d be sleeping in his own room by now.

What happened? Basically, I am one vote of three. On this issue, I was outvoted. Liko breastfed for three years, and, as Peggy points out in her editorial, sharing a bed is often much easier on the sleep of breastfeeding mother and child than the alternatives.

More to the point, I think Liko and my wife just wanted to sleep together, period. They didn’t have a problem with it. (It's worth noting that my wife is partially Chinese-American, a culture in which bed sharing and co-sleeping are commonplace. We have friends of Chinese origin who shared their parents' beds until four, five, even six years old.)

I realize that these two things — bed sharing and breastfeeding until three years of age — put us outside of the mainstream of American parenting practices. As the New York campaign illustrates, some people consider our parenting to be substandard and even dangerous.

And yet I confess, despite the fact that I’d prefer he now sleep on his own, that I don’t feel all that guilty or substandard. Sure, I’d like to regain certain freedoms related to sharing a bed with my wife alone, but the fact of the matter is that I love feeling him snuggle up to me at night and I love seeing his little face first thing in the morning.

We don't drink much or use drugs. We aren't overweight, though recently I've been pushing that one. We don't sleep on a couch. I certainly don’t think he’s been psychologically harmed by our sleeping and breastfeeding arrangements. Quite the opposite, actually.

Today Liko’s a bright, happy, sociable, healthy, and even-keeled little kid who has hit all the developmental milestones more or less on time. I’m not sure that our sleeping arrangement has brought him any “benefits,” but I can say that it is more consistent with his individual personality than sleeping apart would have been.

And so I’ve tried to accept our arrangement, though it does have drawbacks, most notably disruptions to my sleep and a lack of bedtime privacy. The family bed limited my freedom in other ways as well — for example, I don’t think I drank even one drop of alcohol while Liko was an infant, for fear of rolling over on him without knowing that I had done so. Now I’ll enjoy a glass of wine or a beer. On the rare occasions when I’ve actually gotten drunk (maybe 3 times in two years), I make sure to sober up before climbing into bed beside him, just as I would before driving a car, a process that can take hours. These are things I can live with. I don’t need to drink.

I know this issue provokes some strong feelings. I’ve heard people call co-sleeping a form of abuse — that's basically what New York is saying — and I’ve heard sleeping apart called a form of abuse. Certainly, Mothering magazine is not neutral in this battle; the editors are firmly (but sanely) pro-family bed during the breastfeeding years.

Personally, I think people on both sides need to chill the hell out, a sentiment I think a majority of parents would agree with. And honestly, the New York campaign offends me. The press release says that 89 infants have died in their parents' beds since 2006...but how many have died outside of them? And what were the circumstances of those deaths? Was it bed-sharing that killed the baby...or was it the fact that Daddy came home wasted out of his mind?

Since most cultures outside of the U.S. bed-share and since co-sleeping has been the norm throughout human history, perhaps it would be more appropriate for New York to target those parents prone to risky behavior...and help them to cut it out, now that they have kids. This would address a lot of real problems, as opposed to fake ones that are really motivated by prejudice.

You'd figure we'd know this by now: Families are different; the people in them have different personalities, needs, and cultural backgrounds. Human beings are tough, adaptable monkeys who are naturally selected and/or designed to thrive in a range of environments and circumstances. It’s our glory as a species (and possibly the downfall of our planet, but that’s another issue), though that doesn't prevent certain groups from constantly trying to remake other people in their own image.

This doesn't mean anything goes--there are many culturally sanctioned practices that have proved harmful or obsolete. The "Back to Sleep" public health campaign cut the number of crib deaths significantly, and campaigns against domestic violence and certain kinds of corporal punishment have been very effective. But I don't think sharing a bed with your child falls into that category, not by a long shot. The family bed should be a source of love, not fear.

[Originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]


Matt said...

We shared a bed with both of our kids, mostly because my wife breastfed, but also because it was easy. I enjoyed it, except for the occasional kicks that always seemed precisely delivered. We're not drunk, high, or fat. I'm willing to bet that those are the sole indicators of "smothered babies", it may just not be politically correct to say so explicitly.

The girls also slept on their stomachs. Interestingly, you should read up on research done by Dr. Daniel Rubens for SIDS indicators. After reading about it, I question the "Back to Sleep" stuff.

I'm a little bitter about it, especially when our pediatrician encouraged us get the girls out of our bed and onto their backs. I partially credit bed sharing to the close relationship that my wife and I have with our daughters.

Deaths related to bed sharing are minuscule compared to other more serious things affecting our health and well being. So, its a credit to our health and prosperity as a culture and nation (not to mention to our regulators and legislators) that such unimportant topics are being acted upon. right?? right??

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

In her editorial, Peggy also casts a skeptical eye toward the "Back to Sleep" campaign. I've seen some of the research and I've heard both sides of the debate, and I give a definite edge to the pro-back sleeping side. Of course, it's not as simple as all that--as Rubens's research suggests, there are many factors in play besides sleep position. And it's not like putting an infant to sleep on her stomach is some sort of death sentence; millions and millions, possibly billions, of humans have survived the menace of stomach-sleeping. However, to me, back-sleeping seems like a reasonable recommendation, not particularly burdensome to parents or children and not particularly offensive to any one culture.

Anonymous said...

It's enough to drive me crazy. I used to live in NY. The state is too large in size and needs to be cut up into sections. I've lived all over the country and have found the smaller populations have the best run government. In this case, NY should drop the lawyering on banning co-sleeping and pick up parental education: the state is a joke when it comes to its laws!

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I've come to feel the same way about California, which should be chopped up into three states: North CA, South CA, and...let's call the third state "Sacramento" or "Sierra." The north can be all about technology, science, education, and pot growing; the south can keep cranking out crappy movies and boob jobs; and Sierra can rely on tourism and agriculture. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.

chicago pop said...

Dude, there's more technology in So-Cal than in No-Cal (just by measure of Ph.D's), so on that note, any argument for division of California is self-flattery on the part of the North.

LA is a global city. San Fran is a very comfortable hothouse of alterna-culture, but everything that you'll find in the Bay Area, you'll find in LA to the power of 10.

If you can see 'round the boobs.

chicago pop said...

Back to the issue of states and babies, there are some things I can see the State getting into; sleeping style is not one of them.

Even better is this: the American College of OBGYN's, according to an email I received, is doing a little lobbying of Congress to outlaw at-home births. They've never liked the practice, whether they would push for making it illegal I haven't verified.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"Dude, there's more technology in So-Cal than in No-Cal (just by measure of Ph.D's)..."

That's the wrong measure. Northern CA has Silicon Valley, which is, hands down, the biggest magnet in the world for computer and biotech research and investment. It has the world’s highest concentration of venture capital (twenty-six percent of all US venture capital investment); 62 percent of clean technology venture investment for California went to Silicon Valley companies in 2007. Of course, Southern CA has a tech industry, but it doesn't define the region economically or culturally the way Silicon Valley dominates round these parts. And by education as an industry, I'm talking mainly about Stanford and UC Berkeley, to which Southern CA doesn't have equivalents.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_California#Economic_regions

Lest I appear too boosterish, I'll note that all this wealth fuels a huge amount of inequality and a certain preservationist conservatism that inhibits cultural experimentation.

In any event, I was kind of joking. Isn't it fun how we can zip from co-sleeping to California's economy?

chicago pop said...

It is fun indeed, and I know you're joking, and I do luv SF, but this regionalist stuff drives me batty, so one more response and then it's back to dads and babies ...

Venture capital is a precarious measure by which to gage the reality of anything, especially technology, as we've seen since the destruction of about $5 trillion in the value of tech companies since 2000, and the conversion of a lot of Sunnyvale IT office parks into condos, and the outsourcing of many IT jobs to South Asia...

So-Cal's aerospace, communications, and electronic devices centered on defense contracts continue to be a multi-billion technology sector that needs an educated workforce, and a blue collar workforce in the tens of thousands.

In terms of the "old economy", which should be dear to all progressives, LA has the nation's largest industrial sector, employing about half a million people, and the nation's largest port, through which pass a lot of the imported consumer goods that we buy on a daily basis. It has some of the most ethnically diverse municipalities in the US, and some of the largest populations of certain ethnic minorities, and as a region is the world's 10th or 12th largest economy, depending on the week you look.

In terms of education, So-Cal is second only to New York in the number of 2 and 4-yr. institutions of higher learning, although the Bay Area has a higher proportion of people with graduate degrees out of a smaller population.

Just for the sake of a balanced, diversified tax base (and social experience), it would make sense for both (or all three) parts of the state to hang together.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"Just for the sake of a balanced, diversified tax base (and social experience), it would make sense for both (or all three) parts of the state to hang together..."

Oh, so now your secret political agenda is revealed. Well, I don't think a break-up is imminent, though I do like the idea of one day having a governor who isn't a movie star...

blue milk said...

I really enjoyed this post!

And we're co-sleepers, kid still alive at 3, and counting.

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