The great co-sleeping conundrum and the conspiracy of silence
It starts when you're pregnant. "Are you going to get a snuz-pod, a Sleepyhead, a Moses basket? (I’d get a Sleepyhead for what it’s worth - second hand is great...). “How long will they stay in the room with you? The first few months are hard but they’ll all sleep through in the end!” And on it goes.
Baby arrives, and guess what? It loves to sleep on your chest. Great! But as soon as you put baby down in one of the aforementioned devices: “WAAAAAAAH!” One night you wake in horror to discover you’ve fallen asleep with the baby on you. You cry with the fear of hurting them and promise never to do it again.
Perhaps a kind friend or professional shows you the official guidelines and information about co-sleeping. Perhaps you even try it for a bit with your baby, feeling their soft, milky breath on your skin. This is sort of lovely, and you start to wonder why you didn't do it sooner. You worry about mentioning it to the health visitor, in case this is another one of those mum things that you're "not allowed" to do.
Eventually sleep does come more naturally to these new humans. You start imagining a time when you won’t be up every two hours. You fantasise about it. When the baby finally sleeps for longer than three hour stretches you are both deliciously excited and wildly panicked: “what if they were struggling to breathe?”, whilst simultaneously saying frantically “What if they don’t ever do it again?!”
Then one night, they go through all night. And then another. And a third. And suddenly it’s a game changer: it’s time for baby to have their own room.
This lasts for a while, and you start to feel rather pleased with yourself. When people ask you about how your child is such a good sleeper, you think about your bath, book, bed routine and reflect that it must be that which facilitates these broken nights.
Apart from the old broken night (teething, wind, vomit, you get the picture) sleep becomes something you (whisper it) start to accept is part of your life once more. You begin to relax. Life is so much nicer when you're not feeling like you need to mainline coffee into your veins.
Then, just like that, it changes.
Suddenly your child won’t settle without you. Their gentle, calm breathing is replaced by panicked gulps as they beg for you to “stay, please mummy, just stay.” And suddenly it’s 1am and there’s a little waif by your side, clambering determinedly into your bed.
At first you can’t believe it: “my child sleeps through! And they never want to be in MY BED!” Yet here they are? Their body, in daytime seemingly small, now enormous as they starfish on the diagonal (how?!) Before you know it a week has passed, and you’ve started to expect the little ghost to appear.
“I’ll tackle it next week” you say to yourself, but another week goes by and your little nighttime visitor still comes in.
Eventually you realise that this is just part of your Mum story. It’s a bit tiring. But a crying child in the middle of the night is too much to cope with. At soft play, over a coffee, you “confess” that your child is coming into your bed, expecting to hear gasps of dismay and see the pity side-head-tilt.
"God yeah, it’s CRAP isn’t it” one friend responds, whilst another nods ruefully over a tepid latte. “BOTH of mine come in now” says a third, whilst the fourth is too busy wrangling a nipple-biting seven month old to say anything.
And you realise, that, just like with so much in mumhood, there’s been yet another conspiracy of silence. Another thing that no-one told you, but that is another of these shared experiences you wish you'd known about. We're so busy trying to fix it all for each other, to reassure ourselves and our fellow mums:
“they’ll get to three months and sleep for longer stretches, and by six months they know how to sleep through the night!”
That's often true, and that's really lovely (that's in fact what my daughter did - I know!) But, the thing about having kids is, they change. One minute a child might love their cot, the next they just want to be lying next to you, feeling your warmth and your softness.
Why the great silence about this? The more mums I ask, the more I hear about five year olds, seven year olds, ten year olds popping into bed for a cuddle. Why have we made this into a topic about which we should feel awkward, gauche, embarrassed? Why is co-sleeping with older children such a no-go zone?
I remember when E wasn't sleeping, and reading a very sanctimonious Mum thread on one of those forums you find, dated back from 2012, which read:
"Some mothers seem to think they are only needed from 7.00am-7.00pm. I am not that IRRESPONSIBLE."
My initial reaction was less than favourable (I think I shouted various expletives at my phone). I was so afraid that I would never sleep again. I just couldn't believe a mum could be so openly judgemental towards others, and knew that this wasn't how I wanted to live my life. I was also convinced that once my daughter slept through she'd be in her cot, and that would be the end of it.
Three years on and that baby is now a little girl, who right now needs me in the night. It turns out that lots of her friends need their parents in the night, too. Do I want it to last forever? Heck no. I need my space (and to cuddle my husband in the morning occasionally without starfish getting in the way). Is it what she needs right now? Absolutely. It's tricky though, isn't it. That mum who had a four month old who woke every two hours would probably have sobbed snotty tears if she'd heard that three years on her daughter would be back in her bed. Would it have helped if she'd known that everything changes, and that that's ok?
It's part of the great conundrum of #sharingiscaring - how much should we share, and when should we be quiet and let others learn what happens by experience? I'd love to know your thoughts. In the meantime, I will cross my fingers that tonight is the night my girl decides her own bed is just lovely.