What can we learn from parents around the world and how they raise their children?
And I was intrigued. It’s a fantastic read for parents, educators, and anyone interested in American parenting today. Gross-Loh addresses many of the tough questions of parenting: Where should kids sleep? What should they eat? How do we raise our children to be happy, successful, and kind?
- What should we teach our kids about eating and food?
- Is too much self-esteem harmful to kids?
- Do American kids have too much academic pressure? Or not enough?
- How do we raise kids with good character?
- How do we raise independent kids and foster their self-control?
Here’s my story of co-sleeping and coping. For me, this was the only chapter of the book in which I found myself not sure whether I should be nodding my head or going back to the research journals.
The pediatrician looked at us sternly to emphasize his point. My son was a week old, and we were five minutes into our first office visit. My son and I had come home the night before from a week’s stay in the hospital after a difficult emergency c-section delivery.
The doctor did not seem impressed by our dramatic, desperate story of the night before. We thought it must be the new parent nightmare story to top all new parent horror stories, unparalleled in the history of first nights home from the hospital. The baby had cried all night long. No pauses, until finally passing out at around 4 a.m. in our bed, sandwiched next to us, at which time our cat came out of its hiding spot, furious after our weeklong absence and the presence of a new and loud baby intruder, and began to yowl from 3 a.m. to sunrise. The doctor listened to our story and yawned. I could see he might be holding back an eye roll.
That night the bassinet next to our bed was unused. Before my son was born, I had not given much thought to where he would sleep. It seemed like a no brainer. Co-sleeping, I had read, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, was not a safe option. It was best for babies to sleep as close as possible to their mothers, but not in the same bed. So we put a co-sleeper with fresh new sheets to the side of our bed, and another bassinet in the living room of our Cambridge apartment, ready for his daytime napping.
My son seemed to have other ideas. When placed in the co-sleeper, no longer in a parent’s arms, he screamed like a possessed demon and would not stop. (We wondered what had happened to the baby who had slept fitfully during his entire hospital stay in the plastic hospital bassinet.)
This first night story foreshadowed many months of sleep deprivation by every member of the family. (Even our poor dog, fed up by the constant all day and night screaming and neglect, tried to run away on a few occasions and once even tried to follow a prospective new owner home. You could see the disappointment and resignation in her sad Boston Terrier eyes when she was returned to us.) All prior plans about schedules and sleep were thrown out the window. We would do anything to get him to sleep (and to stop crying), and that included co-sleeping.
We were one of the parents that Christine Gross-Loh in the book calls “reactive co-sleepers”; we slept with the baby inconsistently in an adult bed as a last ditch, desperate attempt to solving our sleep crisis. Most nights, I would end up “sleeping” — I’m using this term loosely, since it basically involved me waking every few minutes, paranoid that I would crush the baby somehow — with our son in the guest bedroom from 3 or 4 a.m. to morning wake up time.
In other cultures, where bedsharing is the norm, they don’t have such an ambivalent, anxious attitude about sleeping with their children, from the newborn stage to later childhood. They are “intentional” co-sleepers, and Gross-Loh argues that this intentionality and buying into this practice as a cultural norm makes all the difference.
We ended up “sleep training” — yes, the infamous “cry it out” with the help of a sleep consultant — when my son was five months old or so and we had moved from Boston to Buffalo. It changed our lives. We had our evenings back to eat dinner together as a couple. We could read and talk in bed together. We stopped fighting constantly about who would or was able to get up with the baby, why the baby wasn’t sleeping, which of us was more tired and why. My son still is not a great sleeper, even as a toddler, but we were able to become functional human beings again who could rely on getting more than a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
I’m not a medical professional. I don’t know who is more “right” — co-sleeping advocates or my pediatrician and the medical community — about whether bedsharing is more or less safe for young babies than other options. As my blogging friend and dear mentor Alice Callahan of the Science of Mom — as well as my favorite and most trusted writer on infant sleep — states, co-sleeping (including its safety) is an issue “with so much complexity — wrinkles and folds of factors like breastfeeding, bonding, instinct, culture, and just plain reality.”
From my reading on this issue, I don’t think that I would be comfortable stating — as Gross-Loh does — that “co-sleeping is safe.” To put it mildly, there are mixed results of studies that try to tease apart the relationship between co-sleeping, SIDS, and baby safety in general.
And we cannot wish away our American attitudes about sleep and the role that sleep plays in the rest of our lives just because other cultures might believe that babies should sleep next to their parents. For better or worse, we are living American lives. We work long hours. We sometimes have an unhealthy and overwhelming relationship to digital media. We don’t have paid maternity leave. Families generally live away from their extended families. We don’t live in communal households. We don’t generally live in close neighborhood networks in which parents provide many kinds of help and support. We don’t have flexible schedules. We don’t have subsidized, easily affordable, and flexible day care. We don’t — like the French — have visiting nurses who help us during the postpartum period. American families often feel like they live on isolated islands, trying to survive financially and emotionally from day to day. And all of these factors impact our attitudes and habits relating to sleep.
After two years of sleep issues with my son and after reading this chapter, here’s what I wish:
- Let’s declare an “end” to the sleep wars. They’re so unhelpful. Co-sleeping is good for some families. But for many others, it’s not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on new mom websites and seen extremely hostile comments from other mothers responding to sleep-deprived new moms wanting to learn about other moms’ experiences with sleep training.
- Let’s recognize that babies are not going to be harmed by sleep training. There is no evidence for this. You may have opinions on whether you would like your baby to be taught self-soothing skills in certain ways. Unless you were asked specifically to share them to a sleep-deprived new mom, keep them to yourself.
- Let’s help new parents deal with the realities of their lives. For American parents, this means that there are endless economic, social, cultural, and psychological reasons why sleep matters in a culturally specific way. As I’ve discussed before, new parents don’t need more stuff, for the most part. Instead of another onesie or blanket, give a new mom a few hours of babysitting so she can nap. Offer to help fold the laundry for an afternoon. Walk the baby around the neighborhood for an hour. Make dinner for new parents and then listen to them and offer non-judgmental support.
- Let’s recognize the connection between sleep loss and maternal mental health. Sleep deprivation can be a leading factor in causing some women to develop symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety, as it was for me. Uninterrupted blocks of sleep can make the difference between psychological adjustment and a serious mental health problem.
The way that babies sleep in the United States is not a cultural universal. This is true. Babies in other cultures sleep differently. But given the realities of my very American life and my very American personality and view of the world, I would not consider co-sleeping. In fact, I would do the opposite: I would teach my son self-soothing skills much earlier and more consistently. And maybe that is a “typically American” solution. But I’m okay with that.
Did you co-sleep? When did you start? Were you “intentional” or “reactive” co-sleepers? What sorts of guidance did you get from your pediatrician?
Now check out the other Parenting Carnival bloggers:
Read Deb from Urban Moo Cow: “Where Should Your Baby Sleep?”
And Sarah from Left Brain Buddha: “Parenting… Without Sleep!”