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A Rediscovery (Chapter 1, The Family Bed)

"Our days, our deeds, all we achieve or are, Lie folded in our infancy." - John T. Trowbridge

Most of us have read or heard, at one time or another, an "authority's" advice on children sleeping with their parents or with other siblings. Although opinions on this subject are quite controversial, the practice is usually frowned upon. This is because such persons, by nature of their professions, usually follow what they have been taught in school. Also, they are frequently associated only in contact with troubled cases that were brought to them because of a need for professional attention. When co-family sleeping is "permitted," it is usually not without the child care practitioner's own personal opinion as to what extent and with what limitations it should be followed. Of course, personal opinions differ tremendously and, being personal, often have nothing to do with fact or even reality. They may change as the practitioner's exposure to co-family sleeping expands. The professionals who are most likely to advocate a relaxed, loving family sleeping situation are those who have themselves experienced such a sleeping setup, discovering that it does not lead to dire consequences. Slowly but surely we are beginning to hear from these doctors, while others are venturing to open their minds.

In the June 1979 issue of Redbook, Dr. T Berry Brazelton made a revealing statement for which I have high respect. He felt he had to re-evaluate his rather rigid ideas on handling sleep problems in our culture. Dr. Brazelton had received an overwhelming number of letters from parents across the country who disagreed with his advice that children should not sleep in the same bed as their parents. What he did not realize was how many parents "did not believe in helping a child learn to sleep alone at night."

On the other hand, one can pick up many a book on child rearing and read that bad sleeping habits in a child are formed when Mother hears Baby whimper and "rushes" in to see if everything is all right. According to these books, the child will wake up more frequently just to receive his mother's attention. "They will wrap you around their little finger," so "take heed". Yet, this seems such a distrustful approach to take toward an innocent baby, who simply needs care and love. Mother is reprimanded for wanting to pick up her crying baby. Yet responding to her baby's call shows concern for her child, and is an action that comes from the very heart of motherhood.

The child, meanwhile, is scolded for reaching out to his parents during a time of need. He is to be told "lovingly but firmly" that night is not a time for parental love and attention. "Now go to sleep," his mother says. Can anyone "go to sleep" upon command, especially during a time of loneliness or fright? Such books strongly advise parents not to take their children to bed with them, whether in time of stress or as a matter of course. The parent is neither allowed nor encouraged to place trust in his own parental emotions. Instead, he becomes the innocent victim of social taboos that seem to change with every generation. Every few years, a new book on child rearing floods the market and confuses the issue, but all claim to have "the answer" to ideal child rearing, as seen from the perch of an armchair. My great-grandmother was told to nurse her baby every three hours throughout the day. "Start solids at nine months". "Baby should sleep a predetermined number of hours during the day, as well as at night".

My mother was encouraged to bottle-feed her children, and only every four hours. "Start solids at six months". A crying baby was not to be picked up until it was "time". Baby slept in his own crib or bassinet. When my babies were born, breast­feeding was actually discouraged as not being very scientific. Solid food was introduced at three to six weeks. Babies must sleep in their own rooms. The big problem was that my children did not read those books, did not understand clocks and schedules, and challenged all those man-made introductions. This book is a result of the search for child-rearing methods that would work for me and my children. And after seventeen years I can honestly say that they have worked beautifully: nursing on demand, weaning when ready, sleeping when tired and wherever the baby happened to be, and co-family sleeping until each child wanted a room of her own. Approach: Listen to the child.

Society tells us that co-family sleeping is taboo. But it doesn't give us any satisfactory answers to bed and nighttime problems with children, either.

The parental instinct should not be underestimated, although this seemed to be the trend for many years. But times began to change in the '70's. In a 1974 newspaper article, Dr. Spock said that parents of this country are convinced that only trained persons know how children should be reared. This, he continued, has resulted in a lack of self-assurance on the part of parents. He goes so far as to call it a "cruel deprivation" that has been imposed on mothers and fathers.

In 1974, another article appeared1, entitled "Why Some Babies Don't Sleep." The authors of this article found that the most common problem of parental concern was the child's waking at night. In their comments on the result of their research, they wrote that some of the advice that frequently comes from health visitors, welfare clinics, and general practitioners is not always very helpful and may actually have little real experience behind it. The minimum research that is done on this problem, compared with matters concerning hospital care of sick babies is, as a matter of fact, striking. "What has emerged from the research," they continue, "has not filtered through very effectively to those who need it."

What do parents have to say on this subject? One young mother wrote, "I deeply feel that our baby should be with us during the night. However, she has a bedroom of her own. Why? I do not know. I wish it could be different. We frequently have such difficulty in getting her to sleep without crying. I wish I knew what to do."

I was this mother, writing about our first child when she was nine months old. As a new parent, it never occurred to me then to take her into bed with my husband and me.

By the time our second child was born, we had talked about this subject with many people. To our great surprise, we found many who "confessed" to taking their children into bed with them. They did so usually because of a child's sleeping problem or because it seemed to result in a happier family.

It is amazing that something as natural, loving, and comforting as co-family sleeping should even be a subject for discussion. But, alas, it is not the first, natural thing that has been disrupted by scientific intervention. Cribs, clocks, and multiple-room dwellings where several rooms are specifically set aside for an individual's sleeping - all come under the heading of inventions. And an invention is on precarious ground because it is often not in harmony with nature. It is "new and improved." The ingredients for love and a close-knit family life, however, have only to be rediscovered. They have been there all along.

A great majority of successful breast­feeding mothers take their babies to bed with them. Since comparatively few mothers breast­feed for any length of time in our culture, it is no wonder that family bed sharing is not the norm. Many parents have never even heard of it, let alone considered it. In cultures where breast­feeding is the norm, bed sharing is frequently as familiar as the family dinner table in our own culture. According to a study by Dr. Niles Newton, which compared the behavior of nursing and non-nursing mothers, there is a significant difference in willingness to share a bed with their babies. Women who breast­feed their children appear to be less concerned with current cultural disapproval of bed sharing.2

This, then, also explains why so many parents said that La Leche League, an organization that helps mothers with the art of breast­feeding, specifically helped them to realize the benefits of having their young children sleep with them.

I would like to emphasize that this book does not quote statistics. It does not intend to "prove" anything. It provides insight, encouragement, and a reason for co-family sleeping. Primarily, it supports the opinion that an open door policy to the family bed is an integral part of open communication and listening to the child's need. This does not mean that everyone must hop into one bed nor that one is a less than good parent if children sleep in their own bed. The Family Bed is a concept, part of a total picture, one step toward rearing happy children. This concept releases families from the social taboo and gives them a freedom of choice.

It should be mentioned that no specific age of the child has been given. He may be referred to as a baby, young child, or child. This has been done to alleviate the strong influence a prescribed age has on a child's expected accomplishments. Most children, for instance, are no longer afraid of the dark by the time they are twelve years old. But suppose you have a child who is thirteen and still expresses fear? There really isn't much you can do about it, except love him, accept him, work with him, and wait until he is no longer afraid.

Among children who are accustomed to sleeping with someone from birth on, there seems to be a natural graduation from needing to sleep in the parental bed to sleeping with other siblings. This book's emphasis is on the young child. It is to be recognized, therefore, that when I speak of sleeping together, i.e. co-family sleeping, the implication is sleeping with whomever he chooses, according to his emotional development. Thus, some children are ready to leave the family bed at age two, while others may not be ready until a much later age.

Twenty-five years ago, when prepared or natural childbirth was a "new" idea, little information was available on the subject. Many people, doctors and laymen alike, scoffed at the concept. Today, because the medical profession and mothers have found it acceptable for the mother to be awake and aware during her labor and birth, prepared childbirth is no longer a novelty. It is becoming quite common, and proving to be highly beneficial and effective.

Likewise, breast­feeding has made a comeback. There is now scientific proof that nursing at the breast is superior to any other infant feeding method. During the last twenty years, an increasing number of publications on the great advantages of breast­feeding have been appearing on the market.

So, also, co-family sleeping is a relatively new idea - new, that is, since we got away from it a mere century ago. Before this natural behavior will again become accepted, its importance and benefits too will have to be proven scientifically. Thirty years ago, it might have been difficult to obtain sufficient convincing evidence. Thirty years ago this book might have had little support. Today, a growing amount of research on the negative results of separation of a mother and her child is becoming available and accepted. Bowlby's book Separation: Anxiety and Anger, volume two of Attachment and Loss, goes into the greatest detail describing the effects on a child when he is prematurely separated from his mother. The author, who is a world authority on maternal attachment and deprivation, discusses in great length the possible psychopathic results of such separation. However, he has simply researched and documented what any keen observer could have realized - unnecessary and prematurely-enforced separation does not make a child happy. It is the author's feeling that a happy child is a secure child.

A mother went on to say that she has always known that a baby is much happier white being held. "But nobody ever gave me a grant to publish that fact." She concluded that, "When I need advice on rearing children, I always ask experienced mothers and fathers of loving children."

Bottles and formula, cribs, clocks, and night lights are inventions that have been tried on children over the past several short decades. In the meantime, mother's milk and mother's arms have always been available, patiently waiting for the passing of man's foolhardy arrogance, which tried to convince us that his inventions were superior to nature. But just wait a minute. Science is now "proving" that which many a parent's heart has known for years: "My child needs me at night as well as during the day and holding him makes him a more secure and happier person."

1 Bernal, Richard. "Why Some Babies Don't Sleep," New Society, February 1974, England.
2 Newton, Niles. "Breast­feeding," Psychology Today, June 1968.

Reprinted from The Family Bed: An Age Old Concept in Child Rearing with the kind permission of the author and Avery Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. © 1987.