When I was studying child development in college, therefore becoming a judgmental ‘expert’ on all the things I thought to be true, I downright opposed family sleeping. I’m not sure where my opposition came from...maybe it was a sign of the times.
When I look back, I loved my own days in my parent’s bed…falling asleep and then being moved to my own bed… all the naps I took next to my Mom…I still remember trying to hold her hand tight enough so she wouldn’t get up when I fell asleep. And now, that ‘college expert’ is long gone (thank goodness), as the ‘family bed thing’ is the freak flag I am happy to wave. It is our way of being together.
In hindsight, I now know, how sleep happens in families is sometimes just what works best, no expert opinion needed. What we all need, parents and children, is to get the best night’s sleep possible, each and every night.
Just to be clear, I am not an attachment parenting type of mom. I was a full time working parent most of my life while raising all five of my prodigy. The family bed just happened. It happened in an unintentionally intentional way and here is how:
I was a busy, young, working mother, trying to complete a masters’ degree and run a full time preschool. I’d open the school at 7:30AM and often close it at 6:00. My maternity leaves were exactly the 6 weeks given post delivery. I took classes or had teacher-parent meetings most evenings and it was during this time that I came to value time in bed as an important way to connect with my children.
It was during this time I intentionally began spending first thing in the morning and last thing at night cuddling my children. These were the few moments we could be together without interruption...The few moments my mind could slow enough to be present for them...The few moments each day we could be up close and personal together. This was the start of our family bed, which led to our eventual nightly routine of musical beds.
At the ripe old age of 40 my back went bad, which meant an upgrade to a King size bed…and what do you know? We could fit even more of us…
In my family of origin, (a very busy, very chaotic household at times), cuddling was handed down to me from my oldest sister, and to me, it is a precious heirloom. As a little girl, I knew when things got too chaotic, I could hide away in my room and wait until my big sister would come find me and cuddle for awhile…it was my way to regroup, and a time for co-regulation.
So shoot me, Ferber! We tried the cry until our baby throws up and we even insisted that if they slept with us it was across the end of the bed… (of course what we thought would be a deterrent, happily became accepted as “the nest”). We have tried it all, and now that my fifth child has finally reached the 8 year old mark, he too, is learning to hold hands from the blow up mattress on the floor. He is learning that 10 nights in a row putting himself asleep is possible, and earning legos by slowly putting more space between our bed and his mattress...and my days of kids in the bed are dwindling. After 23 years I can honestly say… It feels GREAT to have my own space… at the same time, I don’t regret a moment of the discomfort.
Our children need ways to slow down so the rest of the time they can embrace the demands modern childhood places on them. Every once in awhile before school, my kids have what we call “power cuddles”, when they need just two more minutes of closeness before they greet their day they’ll ask for it. “Power cuddles” usually end by saying “okay…one, two, three… you and me against the world, GO!” our call to activation and race to get dressed…
Sometimes ‘cuddles’ are the only time of day we remember to share important feelings, thoughts or goings on from our day…and what better time to unload the good or bad of your day and hear that everything will be okay than before nodding off or restarting on a new fresh day? Think of it as a way to take the load off or allow someone to share the load so we can start anew.
Don’t get me wrong… sometimes the ‘musical beds’ routine really sucks! When I am sick and tired, not ready to go to sleep, or I want my kids to already BE asleep, then yes, having to lie down and risk falling asleep does cramp my style. Sigh. Especially when I really want to pour a glass of wine with Olivia Pope or Alicia Florrick...or when my kids are still up waiting for cuddles when I return from a night out...at these moments it does cramp my style (and my husband’s style even more).
But, there are also the funny times…like only a week ago when both my kids who are still at home were sleeping with us, and in the middle of the night I felt the cat jump up and case the bed for a spot... and I hear my husband sing sleepily “there were 5 in the bed and the little one said..”...And then there are the not so funny times when one of the kids gets kicked out of bed because we think she is the dog.
Not all my kids have the same needs for closeness. One of my kids mostly wants my weight on one side of her bed -no touching- thank you very much, and my youngest wants to be wrapped up in my arms, but truth be told, my kids have developed an ability to feel comfortable with closeness. They have the ability to give and get hugs, to understand personal space, to simultaneously understand that closeness is not only about sexuality and romance and is sometimes just about connecting and being present. Regardless, everyone has ended up mostly in their own bed by 10 years old...with an occasional break down when extra tired or anxious (...or when my 16 year old son returned from 6 weeks in Israel and took a nap next to me).
So now, with 3 adults on my hands, cuddling is not all about being with me any longer. Morning dog piles have become more a sibling thing, especially on the now rare occasions they can all be in the same place. One of my boys says it this way: “It is a complex ape thing...we have complex social structures, and cuddles and pummeling are part of our reunification process.”
Ape thing or not, it is definitely our thing.
P.S. To avoid controversy I will emphasize that my newborns slept in a bassinet next to my bed. Sleep safety is a real concern due to risks of parental sleep deprivation or drug and alcohol use during sleep when your children are young.
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