When I was pregnant with my first baby, like all expecting parents in Australia, we received extensive information about SIDS. Every antenatal appointment we attended, included a discussion about SIDS. Every information pack we received included a pamphlet about SIDS. By the time my little boy was born, I well and truly got the message: The only safe place for babies to sleep was alone on their back in a cot – easy!
Truthfully, I didn’t give this much thought throughout my pregnancy because I was NEVER going to bedshare. Not only was it unsafe (in my opinion), but I heard the cultural messages loud and clear: if you bring your baby into your bed you will never get them out. Plus, how was I supposed to maintain intimacy with my husband with a baby in the bed? Nope. My baby was going to sleep in their cot. There was no doubt about it.
Like most parents, I spent the night in hospital after giving birth. My husband had gone home for the night and I was exhausted. Struggling to sit up to feed due to a perineal tear, I was attempting to feed lying down when a midwife came in and gave me a stern warning not to doze off. She instructed me to finish feeding and place him back in his crib. My inner “good girl” winced at being scolded and I quickly sought to comply. I wanted her to see that I was a good mum. That I always followed the rules, especially when my child’s life was at stake. But I quickly realised that I could not simply hop in and out of bed. My legs were still a little numb from the epidural, I still had a catheter in, and my perineum was starting to ache. The midwives were all busy and I didn’t want to bother them. But I couldn’t figure out how to transfer him without any support. And honestly? I didn’t want to. I couldn’t explain why, after all the crib was right next to my bed, but it just felt so far away.
At 2 am I had to accept that I could not do this alone. I organised for my mum to come up to the hospital to support me, and reserved myself to staying awake and holding him until she arrived.
When we got home from the hospital the next day, I was committed to following all of the Red Nose Safe Sleeping Recommendations. But as it turned out, my son had not got the memo that bedsharing (which is a biological norm that humans have practiced since the beginning of time) was out, and independent cot sleeping was in. And he was PISSED.
Like many babies, in those early weeks, still adjusting to life outside of the womb, my baby refused to sleep anywhere but on us.
This would not had been a huge problem, except that I had developed a crippling fear that any slight deviation from the safe sleep recommendations would cause my baby to die. In my sleep deprived mind, this was not a possibility, but a certainty. So we did the only logical thing we could think of (when I say “we” what I really mean is me. At this point I was calling all of the shots. That is a story for another day): We decided that we would stay awake and hold him while he slept for the next 7-10 years.
My husband and I began taking shifts. Yep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week we would watch our little boy to ensure that no harm came to him. As my husband was use to working nights, he would stay up watching TV and holding our newborn until 1 or 2 am. When his eyes became heavy, we would come and wake me (having already done so multiple times overnight for feeds). At this point I would begin my day. For two weeks this worked beautifully. I was entranced by this little guy, and savored the opportunity to spend time with him while the rest of the world was sleeping. We watched beautiful sunrises together and I even discovered a love of Formula 1 (???).
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the fatigue to catch up with us. Some nights I would come out to the lounge room to find my husband asleep on the lounge, our little boy sound asleep on his chest, and I would feel seething anger. “How could he risk our child’s life like that?” I would think to myself. Other nights I would do the same.
Come morning, I would find our baby in an obscure position having slid down off my chest. I would grab him in a flurry, terrified that he was dead. When he screamed himself awake, I was immediately relieved but this feeling was quickly overtaken by shame and guilt. I was mortified that I had let this happen and terrified about what could have happened.
When it soon became clear that this was unsustainable (not to mention unsafe), we attempted to put him to sleep following the SIDS guidelines. My husband and I slept in bed together with our little boy in a bassinet beside us. When he woke, I would turn the lights on and sit up in bed to ensure I didn’t fall asleep while feeding him.
Some nights I would ask my husband to sit up and watch us to make sure I didn’t doze off. Other nights I would scroll through my phone, hoping that the blue light would be enough to keep me awake. Once he had finally finished feeding, I would rock him until he fell asleep. I would place him down sound asleep in his bassinet, turn his white noise on and silently slide back into bed, aching for the sweet relief that sleep would bring. 5 minutes later I would be jolted awake to the sound of him screaming. This went on all night, every night. For weeks and weeks.
The sleep deprivation was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Some nights my husband would find me sitting in bed rocking a pillow convinced I was holding the baby. Other times I would have a nightmare that I had suffocated him and would furiously pull the blankets off the bed while searching for him, only to find him sound asleep in his bassinet. One night I remember sitting up in bed tapping my foot rhythmically. When my husband asked me what I was doing I told him that I was rocking the bed. I knew rationally that this was not possible but I was also fully convinced that it was. Basically, I had completely lost the plot.
In this moment I remember thinking: “surely this cannot be safe. There has to be a better way.” But what? This is what the “experts” recommended. And everyone else seemed to be managing just fine? So we persevered, trying desperately to do the right thing. Like 80% of parents, there were moments when we co-slept, simply due to exhaustion (I know this now. At the time I felt like I was the only person in the world succumbing to co-sleeping). When this inevitably happened, it was always under the most unsafe conditions. In our efforts to avoid bedsharing, we often ended falling asleep in situations that (I now know) were far more unsafe than safe bedsharing, such as on the couch or in a recliner. These moments provided some brief relief. Unsurprisingly, our baby slept better when in contact with us, but the guilt and shame was unimaginable. “How dare you risk your child’s life simply because you’re a little tired?” I would chastise myself.
8 weeks in we decided to move our little boy into his own room. I knew that the recommendation was to room share for 12 months, but we simply could not go on like this. I hoped that if he was father away his little noises would not wake me, and I would be able to steal a little more sleep (why did no one ever mention how noisy newborns were?). I cried a lot and felt like the absolute worst mum in the world.
Our son slept slightly longer stretches, but I was up more than ever. I hated having him so far away. It felt completely unnatural and unsafe. I feared the worst and checked on him CONSTANTLY. I mentioned this to my midwife who reassured me that all new mums check that their baby is breathing from time to time. When I reflect on this experience I wonder how she did not see the red flags, but I suspect it was because I was so good at hiding them.
We continued on like this for awhile until one night, in desperation, we purchased a sleep program (again, by “we” I mean “me”). Our son was three months old and the sleep deprivation was taking a toll on every area of our lives. The program promised everything that I so desperately needed: Sleep, predictability, time for myself, a sense of control…. I salivated over the thought that one day I would be able to place my baby down at a predictable time and he would fall asleep independently (and stay that way for longer than 34 minutes). But this wasn’t just about me. The program reassured me that I was giving him the gift of sleep, teaching him valuable life skills like resilience and independence, and setting him up to be the most calm, zen, happy child on this planet.
I wasn’t doing this to my baby, no no no. I was doing it FOR him.
I enthusiastically printed out the schedule and stuck it up in multiple places around the house. Determined to make it work, we followed the program to a “T.” We prepared an ideal sleep environment, removed all negative sleep association, patted and shushed, timed intervals of “age appropriate crying,” and crossed our fingers that it would work.
The process took not days, but weeks. I spent hours upon hours patting, shushing, hiding and sneaking out of his room. If I wasn’t actively trying to get him to sleep, I was calculating the next nap time or watching like a hawk for tired signs.
During this time I avoided leaving home unless absolutely necessary. This seemed extreme, but I was sure that once he was “trained” the predictability of his schedule would give me more freedom. It felt so unnatural to ignore my baby’s bids for connection. To not run to him and scoop him up as he cried in his cot alone. To be able to endure this for weeks upon end, I had to shut down a part of myself. Disconnect from that deep, primal, instinctual part of myself that knew that this couldn’t be the only way. I surrounded myself with people who reinforced that we were on the right path, unfollowed social media accounts that cast doubt over my decision to sleep train, and carried on until eventually, sleep improved enough that I felt I could justify our approach.
Eventually, whether due to sleep training or simply time, our son began to link sleep cycles. His 34 minute catnaps lengthened and he was “only” up twice per night (to be clear, this took MONTHS).
I told anyone who would listen and sung the praises of sleep training.
Things were going great.
Never mind the fact that I had become the gatekeeper of my child’s sleep. Never mind that I stopped leaving the house if there was the possibility that it would affect his sleep. Never mind that my child would not sleep anywhere except his carefully controlled sleep environment. Never mind the fact that our lives revolved around sleep. Never mind the fact that he still cried himself to sleep often. Never mind that I missed cuddling him to sleep. Never mind that I had become completely disconnected from his cues and could no longer differentiate between “fussing/protesting” or crying from sickness or teething pain. Never mind. Never mind. Never mind.
Things were going great (or so I told myself). Until they weren’t.
Suddenly he would learn to roll, or cut a tooth, and everything that we had fought so hard for would go out the window.
You see, what no one tells you about sleep training is that that horrific time you endure at the beginning is not a once off. Not even close. This is not a lifelong skill that they have now mastered. They are human, babies at that, and they will inevitably deviate from the schedule for one of a million reasons. And when they do, you have to repeat the process.
When these moments inevitably arose I felt incredibly torn. I had an overwhelming instinctual need to respond to my baby. To scoop him up and hold him close as he fought off illness or found his way through this new developmental phase.
On more than one occasion I considered saying “to hell with it” but the alternative felt so scary. If not this than what?
I simply could not fathom the idea of going back to that level of sleep deprivation that came before. So we persisted, dutifully marching up and down the hallway multiple times a night for months and months on end.
Shortly after his first birthday, our desperation reached a whole new level. So we did what so many other parents have done (but what I never thought we would do), and checked ourselves into “sleep school.” That experience deserves a whole blog to itself, but in short it was awful. The first nap of our stay they took away everything that bought him comfort (you know, those positive sleep associations we had introduced intentionally as part of the sleep program). This included white noise and his beloved bunny “Walter.” I sobbed at the thought of him sleeping alone in that metal crib (let’s be honest it looked more like a cage) in a dark and unfamiliar room. I wanted to run to him, scoop him up and keep running right out of there.
The nurses assured me that it was “mother-led.” That I could pick him up whenever I wanted. But I wanted to be a good girl. I wanted to ace sleep school and go home with a sleeping baby feeling successful and accomplished. I wanted this to be worth it. So I let them do what they needed to do (which honestly was not a lot). When they finally settled him to sleep after nearly 2 hours, they motioned for me to sneak out of the room. As I turned around, my ankle cracked and the sound was enough to wake him. “This is why we use white noise” I thought to myself. The nurse rolled her eyes at me and went back to patting as my baby wailed for me.
The whole experience was traumatic (for us both). I cannot stress highly enough how sick I feel recalling this experience. On day four, feeling like an utter failure, I checked myself out and went home.
We spent the next year much like we had spent the first. Walking back and forth (and back and forth and back and forth) to his room. Anywhere from 2-10 times a night. With my husband working nights and me breastfeeding, I bore the brunt of the load. It strained my mental health, our relationship, and severely affected my ability to enjoy parenting. There really is not enough time for me to go into detail about just how challenging this period of my life was. I felt anxious and depressed and was beyond exhausted. It is hard to know which was the chicken and which was the egg in this situation. Did I sleep train because I was anxious about sleep? Or did the militant approach cause me to feel anxious? Was I feeling depressed because I was so sleep deprived? Or because I was too anxious to fall back to sleep when my son eventually did?
When our son was 2 we moved houses and decided to move him from his cot to a big boy bed. We opted to buy him a queen sized bed for a few reasons: We didn’t want to have to upgrade as he grew, we figured it would lessen the chances of him rolling out, and we wanted the option to crawl into bed with him on nights when we was ill. While initially we intended to only bedshare when he was sick, it didn’t take long before we realised how much better he slept (and therefore we slept) when we bedshared. Over time we started sleeping with him more frequently. I think what surprised us most about bedsharing was how much we enjoyed it. Sure he took up most of the bed and kicked us in the ribs constantly, but sleeping next to him felt so natural. Living on acreage with a husband who works 4 nights a week, there truly felt like no safer place in the world for my baby than right there next to me. I came to enjoy bedsharing so much, that some nights when he was sound asleep in his own bed, I would pick him up and bring him to bed with me for a snuggle.
When I fell pregnant with our second child, I worried how this new dynamic would affect our sleeping arrangements. As both my tummy and back pain grew, I found myself needing more space (and far more pillows) to get comfy enough to sleep. We decided to transition Taj to sleeping almost exclusively with my husband. It was a natural and easy transition. During my pregnancy I educated myself on safe bedsharing, knowing that this time around we would do it in some capacity from the very beginning. This decision was cemented when I sustained a 3rd degree tear during birth which required surgery to repair. Hopping in and out of bed and sitting to breastfeed was incredibly painful and placed a lot of strain on my healing perineum. Out of necessity as much as choice, I decided to bedshare with our daughter from birth.
7 months in and I cannot overstate what a different experience sleep has been this time around. While I absolutely believe that some of this is due to my daughter’s temperament and our increased confidence as 2nd time parents, safe bedsharing has played a key role in this experience.
Since my daughter was 2 weeks old I have never woken up to tend to her overnight. Now don’t get me wrong, she absolutely wakes through the night to feed. But having mastered breastfeeding while side lying, I barely have to rouse to feed her. By morning I could not tell you how many time she woke overnight, or if at all.
While I am constantly tired (due in no small part to staying up past my bedtime to squeeze in some desperately needed “me time”), I could count on one hand the number of times over the past 7 months that I have woken feeling utterly exhausted in the way I experienced with my first child. It feels braggy to even say that, but it is my truth. Having now spoken to many other bedsharing/ breastfeeding mothers, I know now that my experience is also not unique.
There has been, and will continue to be, times where her sleep is more disrupted, such as when she is teething or going through a developmental leap, that is unavoidable. But I feel that this gives us the best chance of being well-rested regardless of the circumstances. And, if at some point bedsharing stops being the best choice for our family, we will adapt.