Co-sleeping, bed-sharing, sleeping in sensory proximity: however we describe it, the practice of sharing your bed with your baby or child is widely regarded as a taboo, and is an increasingly divisive subject among parents. As a new mum almost 14 years ago, I once sheepishly admitted to my health visitor that I was so tired that I’d fallen asleep while feeding my daughter in bed and woken in a panic several hours later. The stern words I received from her were enough to make sure that from then on the only way I ‘co-slept’ was on the bedroom floor, one arm awkwardly crooked through the bars of the crib as I held my daughter’s chubby hand.
However, several rounds of IVF and two babies later, things changed when my son was diagnosed with severe reflux at just a few days old. Although I was experienced and confident with breastfeeding, every feed was a squirming, fussy nightmare and he was waking every 15 minutes through the night. I was exhausted. The expensive gliding crib in the corner of our room, lovingly cherished like a beacon of hope through all of my failed IVF cycles, remained empty. Eventually, one evening, I gave in. My husband slept on the sofa and I spent the night in our bed with my hand on my son’s belly. A full seven hours later, we all woke up feeling as though we could push mountains over. Despite all the warnings, all the bad press and over a decade of other mothers’ ‘advice’ to lean on, I was converted.
This is not intended as a debate over others’ co-sleep choices, but I will state very clearly that we followed as many safe sleep precautions as possible. I never allowed my son to share a duvet or pillows with us, only ever using cellular blankets or a sleeping bag for him. As an extra precaution my husband slept in a separate bed until we invested in a side-sleeper crib.
By the time our son was diagnosed with cow’s milk protein allergy and became much more settled some four months later, we had already found our new sleep rhythm. When he outgrew the side-sleeper crib at around 7 months old we knew that we were crossing into previously uncharted parenting territory. All my ideas and interior design dreams for a magical rainbow nursery fell by the wayside and I found myself buying the cheapest, most basic cot possible. My husband modified it to be the exact height of our mattress, I custom-made bedding to fit, and before we knew it we had an ‘official’ three-person bed. “We’ll get him into his own bed when he’s two,” I told my husband. I said much the same thing as our son approached three. This was no longer a temporary fix while we waited for that magical time when he would finally sleep through the night: this was our ‘new normal’.
Even my most open-minded friends found it bizarre when I accidentally let slip that I was trying to find a toddler duvet set to coordinate with our own adult quilt. “You’re still bed-sharing?” one gasped. “But what about… you know…?!” Yes, of course I knew what she was getting at: for most couples, evenings are spent relaxing on the sofa before heading up to bed, where things other than sleep can and do happen. Our son had only just turned one at the time and I have absolutely no shame in admitting that he managed to sleep through quite a lot! Would he have been scarred for life if he’d woken up, though? Of course not – it’s another myth of extended co-sleep that children will immediately run screaming if they ever witness their parents in flagrante. As our son grew, our habits changed, but we certainly haven’t experienced a negative impact on our physical relationship, even though I nursed our son until his third birthday. There are of course plenty of other places in the home to spend intimate time together, and if anything we managed to maintain our relationship much better than we would have done if we hadn’t been sleeping so well.
So, what does sleep look like for us now? We eventually did buy a toddler bed for the corner of our bedroom, if only as a place for our son to relax and read by himself. Recently he has been going to sleep in his own bed, but he still inevitably ends up with us by midnight. Does it bother us? Not one bit. I know that this season of my life will be over before I know it, and perhaps knowing he is our last baby has played a part in that too. There are so many factors involved in children’s personalities and behavioural development that it’s difficult to know whether our closeness at night has impacted on him, but he is certainly the most settled and content of all my children.
Our experience has caused a dramatic change in my outlook on how we are taught we ‘should’ sleep with our babies and children. I now wholeheartedly believe that the transition from third to fourth trimester – and beyond – is so much easier when we maintain that sensory proximity and allow our babies to touch, smell and feel us even in their sleep. In some ways, it seems a baffling concept that post birth we return to our own beds, shared with our partners – for comfort and intimacy, of course – while expecting a brand new person to sleep soundly alone on the other side of the room. Something often pointed out by co-sleep advocates is that nowhere else in nature are parents or mothers separated from their offspring at night. For the parents who do follow the side-sleeping route, there’s an almost unwritten rule that this can’t be forever and that by a certain age it’s better for everyone to revert to the usual night-time rules. If this works for your family, fantastic. Good-quality sleep, however it happens, is one of the most important elements for keeping a family happy and healthy. But when sleeping together is a good fit, why are we all still feeling pressured to be ‘normal’?
The more I’ve spoken about this, the more I’ve found other parents who decided against separate sleep spaces and are still happily sharing their bed with their children. I’m so pleased that what appears to be almost a taboo is lifting; in the same way that breastfeeding into toddlerhood was once seen as ‘alternative’ parenting and is now being normalised, it would be wonderful for extended bed-sharing to be seen as an acceptable concept for ordinary parents too.
Children grow, very quickly, and it’s very unlikely that any child would choose to sleep with their parents as they get older. I don’t know when our co-sleep journey will come to an end, but I do know that I’m happy for that to be entirely my son’s decision.
Nicola, Dean and Raven
“During my pregnancy, I didn’t even know that I had the option of sharing a bed with my child,” Nicola tells me, while playing with her 21-month-old daughter, Raven. “When I showed my health visitor our side-sleeper crib, she told me she had never seen one before. I think as a society we are encouraged to think we have to raise our children in a certain way: having a nursery, set bedtimes, only breastfeeding for a certain amount of time. When Raven was coming up to six months old and growing out of the bedside crib, we suddenly realised that the largest, nicest bedroom in the house was in fact hers. I couldn’t even imagine how her sleeping alone would work; I sleep topless and she just helps herself to milk when she needs it. We could struggle to get her into a room by herself – or we could all just move into her room. We bought a cot, which Dean altered to fit against our bed, and carried on as usual. It felt like a rebellious act, to shun the normal perceptions of parenting and do things our own way.”
I query how Dean really feels about having their daughter in bed with them for even longer than they had planned, curious as to whether everyone is as relaxed about this side of co-sleeping as my husband and I are. “I think we both agree that the concept of ‘the marital bed’ is a bit old-fashioned,” she laughs. “He’s just really cool with it. He never imagined it happening for this long, but then neither did I. We never really talked about it until we had to get rid of the crib.”
Dean and Nicola’s first child, Winter, died just one day after he was born. When I ask Nicola if she feels this has influenced her relationship with Raven, she shakes her head. “I don’t think so. I have mothered her the only way I know how – I think the way I am with Raven is how I would have been with Winter. Even after the experience of losing him, I’m still a bed-sharing advocate, and I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same with him. It’s made motherhood so much more enjoyable.”
So, what’s been the biggest surprise about choosing to fully embrace co-sleeping for the foreseeable future? “I imagined motherhood differently,” she says, thoughtfully. “I thought Raven would be in her own room by six months, finished nursing by twelve… I wanted to have another baby quite soon, to have a small age gap. But sleeping together has made me much more patient. I think we’re all conditioned to try and make our children fit into our lives, rather than the other way around. Sleeping together is what suits us for now. I’m in no rush for her to grow up. It’s just listening, really, isn’t it? I think parenting would be a lot easier if we all just followed our children’s lead."
Teresa, Dominic and Oliver
“From the beginning, Oliver was a cuddly baby, always most content during skin-to-skin time,” Teresa tells me. “We’d gone through the motions with his two older siblings: controlled crying, sleeping on the floor, the ‘pick up, put down’ method. These things rarely worked, and only resulted in a lot of stress and heartache for Dominic and me. When we had Oliver, I questioned who I was doing it for – the child, and their best interests? Or because it felt like they ‘should’ be sleeping happily by themselves?”
Teresa’s co-sleep journey happened, as it does for most of us, almost accidentally. “He was such a hungry baby. Breastfeeding was wonderful for us and fitted perfectly with his need to be cuddled. Now he’s 31 months, and our feeding journey has recently come to an end. But he still needs the physical contact, that closeness. I couldn’t go down the sleep-training route again, so we ended up here.”
I ask if she thinks there is still pressure about sleep habits from other parents. “Absolutely. I’ve realised that everything is a phase; nothing lasts forever with children and there will certainly come a time when he doesn’t want to be cuddled up in bed with Mum and Dad! I’m happy to enjoy this stage until then, but I know that some of my friends think we should be pushing him to sleep in his own room.” She laughs. “Some of them think it isn’t fair on my husband!”
Finally, we talk about parenting in general and the things we wish we’d known sooner – in my case, that co-sleeping can and does fit into ‘normal’ family life. “People will always have an opinion on most aspects of parenting,” she nods. “I’ve learned to just go with what’s right for you and your little family. That’s all that really matters, isn’t it?”
Liz Brown is a documentary photographer enjoying a simple outdoor lifestyle on the edge of the Peak District with her husband, three children and a menagerie of animals. Following a decade of chronic ill health and several life-changing surgeries, Liz is currently working on 'Unwomen', a personal project photographing women who live with terminal, debilitating or chronic illness. Meeting so many remarkable women and mothers has reignited her love of documenting the raw and everyday family moments we often take for granted. lottiebrownphotography.co.uk
First published in Issue 62 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.