31 August 2009

This is a hard post to write. I wouldn't have thought so fifteen minutes ago, as I lay in bed with my thoughts chasing themselves silly in my brain. But now that I've come to do it, it's gotten a lot more difficult.

Usually, I try to couch the heavy stuff in humor, so as to not seem like a fanatic, and to keep those with differing opinions reading without offense, but it seems like there's no way around that sort of business with this post, since almost everyone has an opinion about this subject, and I can guarantee that you are going to either love what I say or hate it. So I'm going come out and say it: this post is about sleep.

Don't mess with my sleep. I'm not kidding. Let me tell you why:
  • Mother of two small children
  • Third floor walk-up apartment
  • Carrying babies and groceries and sometimes a toddler, too
  • In charge of the house - which does not clean itself (you were right, mom)
  • Mother of two small children
  • Recovering from surgery (still)
  • Propensity to worry if awake at midnight
  • Early morning "alone time" (where I get to shower and pray and do yoga)(don't mess with my shower, either, but that's another post)
  • Mother of two small children
  • Inability to sleep past 8 AM
  • The direct relationship between sleep and temper
  • Sleep deprivation is literally a form of torture
  • Did I mention I have two small children?
The list goes on and on, but I will not. Summarily, if you wake me up in the middle of the night, you'd better have a pretty good reason.

So when I was awakened this morning at 1 AM I thought, "what's on fire?" I couldn't immediately figure out why I was awake - Elsie was asleep, Nathan in bed, and Olivia snoring across the room. After puzzling for a minute, I discovered the culprit - our downstairs neighbor. Who is 10 months old. Screaming. At the top of his lungs. For 10 minutes or more. Finally, I heard the blessed door to his room open and thought, "hooray, mama!" But the crying continued. For another 10 minutes. Being a mammal and a mother myself, my body physically responded to his cries, by pumping adrenaline into my system and prompting lactation. I became the Mama Hulk (hey, Jessica!). I was enraged at the cause of this baby's distress. No one would stand in my way! I had heroic visions of bounding down the stairs, breaking through the door and rocking him to sleep. Although how he may respond to being soothed by the Hulk...

When he finally and suddenly quieted, I knew his mama had come to the rescue, but also knew that this was not what she had planned - they are trying the "cry it out" method of sleep "training." The mama starts grad school soon and wants him to be on a sleep schedule so that she can study and rest. We all want happy neighbors, believe me!

Up to this point, dear reader, I can be fairly sure that you have at least commiserated with my sentiments. But I fear here is the parting of the ways. Because now we are delving into that electrically-charged topic: baby sleep. And I, being up at 3 AM, have no qualms about telling you how it is. So, there.

Everyone's a know-it-all when it comes to babies. So let me state plainly that I am in no way trying to prove why I am right and everyone else is wrong. I am simply putting to rest (no pun intended) all of these silly little arguments that I have encountered during our foray as parents relating to babies & sleep. I'm no professional, but my babies are both asleep, and neither woke me up.

First off, we sleep with our babies. In the same room. In the same bed. To be succinct, we sleep with our baby in "the big bed", whilst our toddler sleeps in her toddler bed most times, and sometimes migrates in the middle of the night to the big bed.

Well, it's not because we're hippies or new-age granola-eating nutters, although I sometimes give that impression.

Space, of course, is a big consideration. We have a one-bedroom apartment. We have one salary coming in, and it's barely living wage for a single man, let along a family of four. We live in Chicago, which is full of tiny spaces, so a crib isn't going to fit in with our queen bed and our dressers, and thus it was initially out of necessity that we plopped a crib mattress on the floor next to our mattress when Olivia was born.

Development is also improved by close contact between mama and baby. It is a scary thing to be born - to go from the warm, all-inclusive womb-room to the bright, chilly world is a big change. Babies' heart rate stabilizes and breathing improves (not to mention crying decreases) when in close contact with mama or papa (see Kangaroo Care). I recall an anthropological study done in West(?) Africa which noted that in a particular culture, it was the practice for children after they were weaned to lay their heads on their mother's breast (read "near her heart") every morning before going out to play. This study also noted that the IQ for these children was higher on average than in the United States.

But the biggest and best reason? SLEEP!! I sleep so much better when that baby is in the bed right next to me. Do I sleep through the night? No. But I wouldn't anyway. Mamas have what is called heightened adrenaline production. It's a by-product of having children. I wake up sometimes just to check if my husband is breathing. Imagine how much more I am concerned about my offspring. However, the reason I sleep better is because I don't have to go far to check on my family. Nursing is simply a matter of rolling over. In fact, mothers who co-sleep (that is, sleep with their babies in the same room and/or the same bed), wake up more often, but for shorter periods of time - so much so that I can't even remember waking up most times. My quality of sleep is improved, and therefore my mood is improved as well. Have I ever had to get up in the middle of the night for babies? Yes - three times, and all of them involved vomit. But no baby has ever cried in my bed. If she stirs, I'm right there. Elsie will nurse without even waking up, so I guess I can say she sleeps through the night, although that in itself is a silly measurement of the "goodness" of babies.

Common Concerns

This is the part where you pretend that you are my mother, and I get to convince you that what I am doing is a good choice for my family.

One of the arguments that I've heard against co-sleeping is the fear that the baby will never leave the family bed. So let's talk about independence. Apparently, this is the pinnacle of achievement for any parent - and independent child. I can appreciate this. Having a child who can go the bathroom by herself is a wondrous thing indeed. I want my girls to be fully conscious and intelligent contributors to society. When they're grown. Which, as one can observe, they are not. No one expects an infant to use the toilet, so why should we expect a baby to sleep through the night in a cold room, with no other people nearby? Babies are babies. They are not little grown ups. We are one of the few animals whose baby is born completely dependent upon us. Perhaps it's because we are bipedal and our pelvises are too small to pass a fully-developed human brain (that's my anthropological training there). Or maybe it's what makes us distinctly human. Whatever the reason, our babies need intense care. They can't even move on their own with any purpose until 6 months! Meet a 6 month-old puppy and compare. The bottom line is that we need to care for our babies. Cultures decide what that looks like, and I simply happen to disagree with our culture's attitude.

My mama's biggest concern was that I would roll over on the baby in the middle of the night and squash her. There are of course instances of this happening. Infant death due to overlaying has happened. However, so has infant death in cribs - and crib death is actually higher. The key is safety. Here is why it works for us: we don't drink alcohol, smoke, take sleeping pills or any other drugs. All of these interfere with the body's sensitivities and response. If you do any of the above, then co-sleeping is not for you. A friend explained it to me by asking, "how often do you roll off of the bed at night?" To which I replied, "never." She then said, "how much more do you think that your awareness of your baby will be?"  Interesting point.

Another loving family member once reminded me that's what cribs are for.  I didn't even know what to say about that.  Yes, cribs work well in keeping baby from rolling onto the floor.  Many babies even sleep well in cribs. But cribs are not inherently safe, even with all of the safety standards present in this country.

In summation - we sleep with our kids.  Not everyone agrees with us - but we have, thank God, two healthy growing girls, who are, we trust, full of even temper.  Sleeping with your children is not for everyone, but its for us.

So there.

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