Sleeping With Your Baby

Sleeping With Your Baby by James J. McKenna, Ph.D.

Full Title: Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping
James J. McKenna, Ph.D.
Publisher: Platypus Media, LLC (2007)
Number of Pages: 116
How long it took me to read: 2 days
Where I got this book: I’m borrowing it from my favorite midwife.
ISBN: 978-1-930775-34-3

Like a Moth to a Flame

When I decided Bettie was the midwife for me, she gave me a packet full of helpful information about newborns, labor signs, doulas, healthy diet, that sort of thing. Included was a page advocating her support for safe cosleeping, something I’d had experience with without realizing it had a name. I read her guidelines for it without much thought, but months later, I stood beside her in front of her bookcase as she lifted recommendations from her shelves for me, and her hand landed on this book. “It’s kind of controversial,” she commented. Two voices in my brain spoke at once: one, that carefully cultivated voice of society that we’ve all picked up just by being alive, shouted out, “Of course it’s controversial! Crazy baby-crushers!” But that other voice, the much older voice of instinct, said, “Controversial? Ridiculous. How can basic, loving, human nature be controversial?” The book came home with me that afternoon.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Without the stimulation from maternal-infant contact and interactions—including nighttime sensory exchanges—neonatal brain cells are potentially lost forever. This has led some developmental psychologists to argue that infants are far more threatened by what they do not receive in terms of neurological excitation than by what they do, since ‘pruned’ infant brain cells are not retrievable at a later date. Minimal contact with mother’s body can make the neurological scaffolding less stable and effective, weakening the structures that provide the basis of the infant’s rapidly growing communicative skills, emotionality, and ability to effectively regulate and respond to its own needs.” (p.20)

4. “Most importantly, the idea that any and all bedsharing is inherently dangerous is refuted by mothers themselves who currently sleep safely with their babies, or did so in the recent past. To perpetuate to the public the idea that the mother’s body, no matter what her intentions, motives, and capacities, represents an inherent threat to her infant is not only scientifically unsupportable, but immoral and far more dangerous in the long run, for a variety of reasons, than the idea of cosleeping itself.” (p.29)

3. “Frequently, forms of cosleeping are presented to parents in terms of the ‘inevitable problems’ that might arise if it were practiced. Unlike problems associated with getting babies to sleep alone, and unlike efforts made toward solving the safety issues of babies sleeping in cribs, any possible problems associated with cosleeping are deemed not worth solving, or impossible to solve. These are social judgments, not science. In magazine articles and books that take a negative stance on various forms of cosleeping, each infant death is usually used as ‘proof’ of the dangers of bedsharing, and the whole practice is condemned. But each one of the thousands of infants that have died in cribs is NOT used as proof that crib sleeping needs to be eliminated. Because the true causes of almost all bedsharing deaths reported publicly are omitted, it is easy to understand how many of our citizens fail to realize that this ‘proof’ is actually just a bias that the writer of the article or book has, and that it is not proper scientific proof that bedsharing is invariably dangerous and cannot be made safe.” (p.55)

2. “I worry more and more about our society’s willingness to overlook parental rights, acquired wisdom, and parental judgments in favor of an increasingly impersonal and inappropriate one-size-must-fit-all ‘medical parenting science.’ Aside from getting it wrong on a scale with which we are already too tragically familiar (recommendations to place infants on their stomachs to sleep, place infants in separate rooms, and to bottle feed), such a world view, if left unchallenged, further undermines parents’ enjoyment of their infants and, worse, leads them to doubt their own abilities to assess what their own infants really need and why, preventing them from making their infants happy, safe, and healthy.” (p.29)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “A mother is certainly more than a service provider; she is the entity around which the human infant was designed not just to be awake, but to sleep. The English psychologist Donald Winnicott spoke of the baby’s profound dependence on others for life-sustaining support when he said, ‘There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone.’ When considering what infants need or trying to explain what infants can or cannot do, nothing makes sense except in relation to the mother’s body.” (p.41)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“A short preface by Meredith Small, Ph.D., points out something so obvious I’d never really considered it: Western culture pushes the importance of independence, even in children. I’m not going to say that that’s entirely a bad thing; I’ve always thought of myself as independent. In time, I hope my children will grow to be independent, as well. The farther along in my second pregnancy I got, the more I hoped my first son would be okay entertaining himself during those moments I couldn’t be down on the floor with him due to nursing or changing my new baby.

“I do think it’s good to learn how to be alone because we all find ourselves there at one point or another. But at our cores, we’re social creatures and we need to learn how to be with other people, too. It shouldn’t be considered a weakness to need to be with another person or to ask for help, especially as a child. Indeed, one of the reasons I was so excited to have another baby was because I really don’t want my kids to feel alone. I want them to be able to rely on each other and to keep each other company, to have that close relationship I shared with all my siblings. The truth is that I couldn’t make it through life on my own if I tried. While many of my memories of my childhood are of me happily reading alone in my room or on a quiet corner of a playground, I have a lifetime of memories of my family pulling me through in some way or another, whether it was my brother Harwood showing up to fix my car every time it broke or my parents sending me home with extra groceries at the end of a weekend visit. I know I can rely on my family, and I find joy in the thought that I might be able to help any one of them if they needed me.”

“Dr. McKenna voices what is, to me, one of the most difficult things about parenting: with all the conflicting advice I get from well-meaning family members, professionals, friends, the media, the government, and of course, absolute strangers, it seems like everyone else thinks they can raise my kids better than I can. I find myself saying, over and over again, that the hardest thing about being a mom isn’t the children themselves—it’s all the other people. This would be a much easier job if I were just allowed to do it without being guilt-tripped over vaccinations, feeding, dressing my baby, sleeping arrangements, baby slings, diapering, toys, and even my feelings over who should be allowed to hold my children.”

“It doesn’t surprise me to read that our society’s notions about cosleeping stem from a cultural concept that is less than 100 years old, rather than from any scientific or anthropological study. I’m also not surprised that our society is starting to accept the idea of cosleeping; it fits with other cycles I’ve noticed. Breastfeeding, for instance, was what everyone did until formula was invented, and now we’re at a point where enthusiastic breastfeeders are making headlines for ‘nurse-ins,’ publicly breastfeeding in protest of various establishments who have shamed nursing mothers. Midwives, who were slowly edged out by obstetricians after centuries of providing mothers with care, are also slowly making a come-back as more women make the decision to have a birth free from interference. It makes perfect sense to read that cosleeping was a normal, gut-instinct parenting technique that society got talked out of when Freud and his buddies hit the scene and made us over-think our natural impulses to love and protect our children throughout the night. Dr. McKenna’s studies showing the emotional and neurological impact of having one’s baby nearby in the night is good affirmation for the many parents who have continued to follow their instincts in spite of social convention. A move back to these roots is exciting. Parents shouldn’t feel frightened, shamed, or pressured out of doing what they feel is right for their families.”

“For anyone who is unaware, as I was, cosleeping refers to both room-sharing and bedsharing. Bedsharing is as it sounds, and room-sharing means keeping your baby in your own room overnight, but on a separate sleeping surface. While the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t condone having your baby in bed with you, they do recommend you keep your baby in your room for the first several months, as an infant kept alone in a nursery overnight is at a far greater risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS, for short).”

“In the author’s introduction, he makes a point of saying that bedsharing isn’t right for every family. Regardless of my own views, what a relief to read that! Rather than making a blanket statement that you just do what he says, he offers the information and encourages you to make your own choice. That’s a refreshing attitude, for sure. I think most parenting practices are specific to individuals, as no two children have the exact same needs. If only we could all agree to do what is right for our own families without demanding that everyone else conform to our personal routines! It’s exhausting wading through the wreckage of ‘Mommy Wars’ when trying to do basic research on things like diapers and solid foods. It hurts my heart to read the name-calling and the insistence of anonymous forum posters who rant that anyone who disagrees with them is somehow damaging their children. What a horrible thing for women to do to one another! Shouldn’t we be building each other up rather than pitting ourselves against one another?”

“What is more terrifying and beautiful than knowing a tiny human, incapable of efficient communication, requires your body to survive? Human babies are born, as anthropologist Ashley Montagu puts it, ‘extero-gestators.’ This means that we finish our gestation after birth. Mothers, our newborn babies require our bodies for survival! This means not just our breast milk for nourishment and protection, but also our own body heat to keep them regulated. Not only that, but our touch helps our babies feel secure and safe enough to grow. And that feeling you get when your baby cries for you from another room is no coincidence—your baby’s cry produces a stress hormone called cortisol, and you react. How amazing is it that during the months when an elephant would still be in the final stages of pregnancy, you get to know your own tiny, helpless, needy baby, and be even more active in his growth? You learn to be your own womb to your child, to meet those basic needs without which your baby would fail to flourish, all the while making eye contact and realizing an even deeper affection. You get to learn to love your child! And your very presence ensures a greater rate of survival. How amazing and empowering a responsibility!”

“During my first pregnancy, there was a picture making the rounds of a baby in bed with a knife accompanied by a caption suggesting that sleeping with your baby was just as dangerous. I think that’s when I first grew aware of this particular controversy. Still, in talking to a number of women on the subject, I’ve found nearly every one of them shared her bed with her baby at some point. My mother was one of them, remarking, ‘I’m not sure you’re human if you haven’t let your child in bed with you!’ So I’m not surprised when Dr. McKenna shares his discovery that many parents who present themselves as not cosleeping are actually closet cosleepers, and likely bedsharers. Frankly, at this point, I find it hard to believe that anyone would actually sleep away from her baby from day one. However, with the amount of judgment passed on parents for doing anything outside the presented cultural norm, I understand the desire to keep one’s sleeping arrangements private.

“Throughout our stay in the hospital after my first son was born, I was oh-so-careful to return him to the bassinet by my bed, as if some part of me was afraid that if the hospital staff saw me napping with him, they’d snatch him out of my arms and whisk him out of the room, or at the very least, give me a stern talking-to. He was so small and delicate anyway that I was worried I might hurt him by being near him. Though I’m sure she was sent in to support me, I remember the abrasive lactation consultant stirring up feelings of inadequacy in me, and the hourly visits from nurses and doctors, meant to help, did nothing but make me feel less equipped to mother.

“It was my husband, not me, who took our infant son from his cold plastic bassinet and curled up with him on the fold-out chair by the window, holding him near and dozing off as the sun lit them softly through the blinds. I kept my eyes glued on the pair, worried over the possibility for some catastrophe until I grew calm in the realization that as he had always been for me, Justin was a magnificent protector for our baby.”

“Coming home with a three-day-old son made my whole house feel unfamiliar. Within the first hour of arriving home, Justin ran to the store to get some basics and left me alone with my child for the first time. I moved awkwardly around the house with him in my arms, unsure of what to do with myself. I finally decided I should unpack my hospital bag, but when I went to set him down, he began to cry. It was like that for the first several days. As long as I was holding him, he stayed asleep, but one false move and he’d begin to howl. Justin has somehow blocked this from his memory the same way some women block out labor pains, but the moments of my son crying in distress if he wasn’t being touched are still fresh to me.

“Nighttime was the worst. The first night, I went to lay my baby in his bassinet. His little arms struggled and his feet kicked until he had undone our swaddle. He looked so tiny by himself. It didn’t seem right.

“ ‘Can’t he stay in bed with us?’ Justin asked.

“ ‘No,’ I said, wishing I could say yes, but terrified I might roll over the baby in my sleep.

“I was up and down all night, nursing until he stopped crying, trying to return him to the bassinet, holding him a little longer to quiet his cries, and trying again. It was endless. Justin slept soundly beside me as I slumped forward with the baby in my lap, trying to keep awake enough to set him back down safely away from my dangerous body.

“The next night, I piled pillows to sit me upright so if I dozed off at all, he’d at least still be in my lap nursing. I had done that at the hospital in their reclining bed and no one had died. Maybe I could recreate that at home? It didn’t work very well, but it was better than no sleep at all. I decided I would always and forever sleep upright, propped up by all the spare pillows in our house. The next day, exhausted, I decided I would always and forever keep hours like a cat does, sleeping whenever was convenient, day or night. I could just wear pajamas all the time unless I had to go out. My sleep deprivation whittled away at my sanity until I became resentful and irrational. Why did the baby want me awake? Did he hate me so much he wanted me to suffer? Why didn’t he love me?

“One night, I wanted nothing more than to sleep like a normal person, like I had mere weeks ago, on my side. I curled up with the baby beside me. He latched on and suckled contentedly. I slept. In the morning, I was completely rejuvenated. I called my mother to share my ingenious sleep-nursing idea and found that she already knew! I hadn’t invented anything. All I’d done was discover what centuries of women had been doing without telling me.

“Justin and I hadn’t read up on this or discussed it very much. It was a natural progression that made so much sense. I could respond to my baby’s cues without either of us waking up. If he was hungry, I was there. He didn’t need to cry to get my attention, and he never awoke in fear and isolation. Once he started eating solids and wasn’t waking up to nurse, we would wake each other up at night just by shifting to get comfortable, and I was happy to find that at that point, he transitioned into his bassinet with ease and slept through the night with no problems. Now, at two, he continues to sleep well and is a happy, independent child. When we had our second baby, there was no discussion or attempt to separate me from him. That one quote from Donald Winnicott really resonates with me: ‘There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone.’

“As I write this, I realize this hasn’t always been easy for Justin. Even so, I’m not sure I would’ve considered it without him, and I wouldn’t have been able to continue cosleeping without his constant support. He has been so patient and understanding, willing to let me be guided by our children’s needs and my own instincts as a mother. I really, truly love him for it.”

“When my first son was still new, I was confused by many of the strange things I heard. One woman told me, ‘It’s not true what they say, you know, that holding a baby will spoil it.’ I had never heard ‘them’ say that before, but I soon discovered that this was something her family had told her, as it was considered common knowledge in past generations. That woman’s grandmother had, for years, pressed the importance of bottle-feeding and limiting contact with infants. I was blessed to be raised under a different set of beliefs, including the importance of holding and nursing babies as an act of love. Once I got past the feeling that I might break my son, I never wanted to set him down. I remember the panicked feeling I got while showering, hearing his cries well over the sound of the running water. My first words to him as I rushed to his side, dripping wet, were, ‘You’re not alone!’ After spending months literally inseparable, it only made sense to me that what he would cry over (outside of hunger and discomfort) was the alien feeling of being alone. The idea that my love would turn him into a spoiled monster was just bizarre.”

“Dr. McKenna punctuates his scientific findings with guidelines and photographs to teach safe bedsharing and cosleeping, because like most good things, this can turn bad if done in the wrong way. For instance, bedsharing is unsafe if someone in bed is a smoker or has been drinking or using drugs (medicinally or otherwise), if the baby is on his stomach, if there are other children (or animals!) in bed, if there is a gap, if there are too many pillows or blankets, or if the parents are overtired.

“He also touches on the question of how long to cosleep with your child. I don’t think you can regulate your natural instincts, and with children being so different from one to the next, the answer is: it depends. Dr. McKenna tells how his adult students will, after class, admit to him that on vacation, they still climb into their parents’ bed to sleep or just hang out, talk, watch a movie. My sisters and I continued to do this even after we were grown. I have funny memories of my sisters and I sitting around my parents’ bed, chatting with our mother, telling jokes, comparing hands and feet.

“When I was pregnant the first time, feeling a little in limbo between childhood and adulthood, I crawled onto my parents’ canopy bed beside my mother, considering the vast changes that had taken place since I used to curl up beside her as a child frightened awake by a nightmare. Together we traced the slight bump on my stomach, grinning as we wondered whether that was a first kick or just our excited imaginations wanting to speed the pregnancy along.

“Two years later, I was there again, reading books with my son and parents, sharing the news of my second pregnancy. While I felt more confident in my adulthood, I still felt comfortable clinging to that old warmth I have always found in the safety of my parents’ loving presence.”

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