I was driving my daughter to camp last weekend when she asked me something that had clearly been bothering her: "Is it dangerous to sleep with your baby?"
It was a loaded question, since she knows she and her sisters each slept in bed with me and my husband until they were six to eight months old, an experience that remains among the very sweetest of my life. I'm glad the billboards hadn't yet gone up all over town back then, condemning bed-sharing and urging parents to leave their babies in cribs.
Seeing that giant message on a sign near my house was a stab in the heart. Not just because it disparages a practice I believe to be central to my own family's closeness, health and happiness, but because of the damage I believe it will do to vulnerable families who will endure needless guilt, lack of sleep and toxic stress because of it.
Like many parents, we did not assume we would sleep with our first child. We decorated a "baby room" and bought a crib. Then, as another mother laughingly described it, we treated that room as a shrine -- and went to sleep with the baby in our room.
The moment they were born, our babies were each tucked into bed with us by our home-birth midwife, Ingrid Andersson. She encouraged us to maintain skin-to-skin contact and to breastfeed as often as they turned their sleepy little heads to nurse.
I felt completely in sync with each baby relaxing in what our midwife called "armpit nirvana," head tucked up against me all night long.
And boy did we sleep. Coming fully awake to pad down the hall and breast-feed in a chair five times a night is exhausting. That's why so many parents quickly -- and often secretly -- give it up and bring the baby to bed. No wonder one study found that, while 0% of parents interviewed planned to sleep with their babies when pregnant, 70% did so after birth.
Sleeping together works for nursing babies and their mothers.
It works so well because we evolved over the millennia to perfect it. Hence the panicky startle response and frantic crying from infants who are left alone on their backs, far from their caregivers' protective embrace. Hence that blissful in-tune feeling you get cuddling with your baby in bed at night -- now an illicit activity in Dane County.
A few weeks before the billboard went up in my neighborhood and my daughter asked me about it, our midwife and some of her colleagues who are committed to supporting new mothers and babies launched a campaign to tell the other side of the story. You can read about it on the Facebook page Safe Conversations for Safe Sleep: Real people, real life. My favorite part of the page is the collage of beautiful photos of parents sleeping with their babies taken by Mothering magazine readers.
How do you stack up the lived experience of all that love against the hard facts of the anti-bed-sharing public-health campaign?
I know in my bones that bed-sharing was right for our family. I was so acutely aware of my babies tucked under my arm and nursing through the night that I was confident I would never roll over and crush them. I built a deep sense of connection to them that grew out of the physical connection we made in our family bed in those early days. It just felt right.
My daughter was unconvinced by such emotional arguments.
"When you write about it, you probably don't want to say 'you just know' -- people will be like, 'Uh, no,'" she told me.
Fortunately, Andersson and lactation consultant Anne Altshuler have marshaled a lot of science to explain the benefits of sleeping together -- from the way night-nursing builds milk supply, to how infants need skin-to-skin contact to regulate their body temperature and stress level, to the sad statistics that show infants are twice as likely to die of SIDS if they sleep in a room alone.
Moms and their newborns are still sharing a body. In so many ways, we evolved to be close. It hurts to think of infants and mothers deprived of that closeness.
Responding to a thoughtful article by my midwife in The Capital Times, the head of Dane County Child Protective Services, Julie Ahnen, emphasized that her staff will not take children away from parents for co-sleeping. (I should hope not!) She also said they understand that sleeping together does not cause infant death -- it is merely one co-factor.
Separate out the other co-factors -- obesity, smoking, heavy drinking, drug use, poverty, multiple bed partners, or collapsing, exhausted, on a chair or couch (rather than in bed) -- and the risk of bed-sharing melts away.
Bed-sharing is not for everyone. But there is a huge downside to the public campaign to stamp it out.
All of my children now sleep on their own. But I miss the days when we held them close. And I wish the same joy for others -- the same sense of love and peace for all those babies out there whose parents are secretly sneaking them into the bed....
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.