It all started when our son Benedict, now 23, was still an infant, and his sister Grace was 17 months old. I was involved at the time in La Leche League, an international organization that promotes breastfeeding and natural mothering. It was at a League meeting that I first learned of the practice of “co-sleeping,” in which parents and their children share a sleeping area, or “family bed.”
The concept of the family bed appealed to me right away. I had never recovered from the trauma I experienced when, on the advice of my pediatrician, I let Grace “cry it out” at night when she was only six months old. Hearing her wails from my bed down the hall, I had cried along with Grace and uttered rude words against Dr. Fiendish, the Scourge of Babyhood and Giver of Evil Counsel, for five nights running.
I was enthralled by the idea of being close to my children both day and night. Being separated from them during the dark hours of the night was hard for me. Besides, I was the sleep-deprived mother of a demanding nursling. I had trouble staying conscious enough to keep a grip on Baby while breastfeeding him in a chair at 3:00am. I developed a real empathy for the poor sleepy apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, who were unable to “watch one hour.” All I had to do was nurse for ten minutes on each side while watching a “Gomer Pyle” rerun, and still I couldn’t trust myself not to snooze out and relinquish Baby to the forces of gravity.
Sleeping in a family bed would allow me to be with my children continuously, and would eliminate the need for me to get out of bed to breastfeed the baby. Naturally, I was eager to try out a family bed, although my husband Mike was cool to the idea. But Mike relented once he realized that I had the backing of a dozen militantly maternal women from the local La Leche League chapter. He knew that resistance would be futile.
We devised our first family bed by lowering the side of Ben’s crib and securing the open crib side to the side of Mike’s and my queen-size bed. I loved the convenience of having only to reach over to the crib to pick up Ben for a nursing. But Ben would, to my dismay, often wake up while he was being transferred back to his crib after a nighttime feeding. So it wasn’t long before I found reasons to breastfeed Ben while lying in my bed, and if both Ben and I fell asleep during the nursing session, well, there was no harm done. Needless to say, the crib soon stopped serving its original purpose, and was instead appropriated for use as a changing table and handy catch-all for baby goods. Meanwhile, Grace was very content to spend her nights snuggled in with Mom, Dad, and her beloved baby brother.
This lovely arrangement hadn’t lost its appeal by the time Clare was born 18 months later; there was no doubt that the new baby would be joining the rest of her family in bed. But the practical question was, where would we put her? Even a newborn takes up some room, albeit a small amount. And, for safety reasons, Clare would need her own space, free of pillows and heavy blankets.
It was at this point that Mike and I made a decision that scandalized the grandparents, but earned two thumbs up from La Leche League. We went out and bought a double bed to place alongside our queen-size bed, thus equipping our bedroom with wall-to-wall mattress space.
Our family bed was nearly perfect. Clare was free to nurse throughout the night, and often did so. Ben liked to sleep in the family bed by night, and use it by day as a comfortable surface on which to practice headstands. It was just the thing to accommodate Grace, whose favorite sleeping position was parallel to the headboard. And the family bed provided plenty of getaway space for the parent who didn’t want his torso used as a foot warmer.
There were two small disadvantages. One was that bed-making necessitated crawling across an expanse of mattress and trying to jam sheets into barely-there cracks between bed and wall. It was such a chore that, by the time I was six months pregnant with Leo, I had given up on bed-making altogether. The other drawback was that we had to keep our bedroom door closed when the furnace man came to clean the oil tank, or the plumber stopped in to repair a pinhole leak. I mean, how do you explain attachment parenting to a beefy guy wearing a tool belt?
Our family bed became the center of our home. We’d gather there every night for family rosary, and occasionally, for a discussion or “family council.” On rainy days when the kids were confined indoors, our bed was the site of raucous play sessions. And it was while seated on the family bed with the kids lolling around him that Mike, over a span of many months, read aloud the entire Narnia series plus the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Word of our family’s unusual sleeping – and living – arrangement spread throughout LLL. I got used to hearing, “Oh, you’re the lady with the wall-to-wall beds!” when I met people at League functions. I wrote and talked often about our family bed. While visiting family in the Bronx, a group leader I’d never met even asked me to be co-leader of her New York City LLL group.
But that was then. Three of our four daughters are now old enough to have children of their own, and four of our five sons could whump any burly repairman before he could say “Dr. Spock.” Our present bed is an unexceptional king-size bed. It can, and often does, accommodate seven-year-old Gerard in addition to Mike and me. Eleven-year-old Helen will also occasionally join us the three of us in bed, and when she does, Mom’s sleeping space ends up the approximate size and shape of a yardstick. It has been a long time since I’ve had a nursling beside me, although I still have bittersweet dreams about breastfeeding a baby that I know I can no longer have.
Our family bed has been a blessing. It has given us restful nights and pleasant memories. It has fostered a sense of security in our children, encouraged siblings to be more protective of one another, and strengthened family ties.
Isn’t that what “happily ever after” is all about?
Copyright 2010 Celeste Behe