I was 28 when I became a mum for the first time – I felt that I was ready, and I felt that I was in a good position to start my own family. But… I was also very aware of the fact that I knew very little about babies, and learning how to look after my own baby would be a steep learning curve. I imagined it’d be exciting, for sure, but also challenging, at first.
I generally felt like I needed someone to tell me what to do. I remember the very first time I felt like that (you’ll laugh at this). It was the very same morning my first son was born – he was only a few hours old, and I was over the moon and so excited! It felt amazing to finally meet him and have him here with us! My husband and I were just looking at him asleep in his little cot when my mum came to see us at the hospital and asked: “Have you changed his nappy?”. Me: “Ehm … am I allowed?”. Now, before you think I’m crazy, let me explain… I had read that hospital staff would want to check the colour of baby’s first poo to ensure that the meconium had come out, so I was half expecting that they would change his nappy! Well, of course, NOT the case! (You should have seen the look on my mum’s face by the way).
And so the journey started…
I wasn’t too worried at the beginning because thankfully my mum was staying with us for a few weeks after the birth, so I was fully relying on her to tell us all there was to know. As my questions started coming up, a pattern also started to emerge. The majority of my mum’s answers sounded like “but back then, that’s not how we use to do it. Things have changed” (baby sleeping on the back and ‘feet to foot’ are relatively new guidelines), or “I don’t remember. It’s a long time ago”. So I quickly realised, to my surprise, that I couldn’t really lean on my mum for every single question I had. Fair enough. So who else could help me? Back then, I didn’t have a lot of friends with their own babies yet, so other obvious places to go and get information and advice from were the internet (not always a good option, as it turns out) and of course the Health Visitors – there just had to be someone or something somewhere where I could find information, answers and solutions, right?
There were a few things I struggled with at the beginning. Sleep was of course one of them. My ‘problem’ was that I couldn’t get my son to sleep anywhere than on or around me, day or night. He just wouldn’t let me put him down! Admittedly I knew very little about bed-sharing back then, but I knew that it didn’t sound like the ‘right’ or recommended thing to do. Somehow it felt that it was considered unsafe and even frowned upon, so I never looked into it much. It definitely wasn’t part of our plans – the cot had to be up before my due date, because of course the baby would come home from the hospital and go and sleep in his cot. Where else? He would sleep in his cot in our bedroom for 6 months and then move to his own bedroom after 6 months, as per the standard advice.
That was the plan. What actually happened is that we took our son home on the Thursday evening (he was born in the early hours of that Thursday), and we were both so exhausted from being up the previous night and part of the night before, that we ended up not being able to cope very well with the fact that our son seemed to wake up every time we put him in his cot! We soon realised that the only place where he’d sleep was on either my or my husband’s chest, so, worried but exhausted, we ended up sleeping with the lights on, the duvet off the bed (in December) and my mum walking in at regular intervals to check that the baby was ok. Yes, that night was total chaos, but with a bit more planning after reading about bed-sharing safety, for the following night and for the first 4 months of his life our son slept in our bed.
Then the ‘sleep battles’ started (mainly book-, family- and ‘society’-induced) – “he shouldn’t be sleeping in your bed”, “he should be sleeping in his own cot”, (and later) “is he still waking up and coming to your bed in the middle of the night?”. It was almost like we were made to feel that there was something ‘wrong’ with the fact that he was sleeping in our bed, so we had to somehow ‘fix’ that. We soon ended up in a cycle – we’d have a breakthrough, followed by a regression. He’d finally go to sleep in his cot and stay there for at least a few hours, then something would happen to change the routine (an illness, teething etc.), and we’d be back to square one. He’d be in and out of his cot, then later on back and forth, to and from his room.
Until the day the penny dropped, and we decided we were not going to fight it anymore. The ‘fight’ was the actual problem; we were trying to do what we were told to do or felt that we were expected to do. We realised that our son sharing a bed with us sometimes was not a problem in and of itself. In fact we were all getting a lot more sleep that way. I used to sleep a lot better as I wasn’t worried about not hearing him if he was trying to get my attention – I was next to him, so I knew he was safe. I knew he wasn’t cold, and I could keep an eye on his temperature and breathing. And he’d sleep better and for longer, so we would sleep better and for longer. Plus we loved (and still do) cuddling up next to him in the middle of the night and waking up all together in the morning. It was great. Of course that’s if you don’t mind waking up with a foot on your eye sometimes or being forced to sleep by the edge of the bed when your child decides to sleep horizontally across the bed! Nearly five years later, if he wakes up in the middle of the night, he knows he can come and sleep in our bed. We know it’s not forever, and it’s not a problem.
Looking back, I wish someone had just told us that it was quite normal for a baby to share a bed with their parents, and that, as long as it’s done safely, it’s not a bad habit that you need to change. It’s more like a lifestyle choice. Bed-sharing worked for us as a family, it appealed to us as a family and felt like the most natural choice for us, for reasons that we weren’t even aware of before our son was born. We didn’t plan it, but it turned out to be something that seemed to fit very well with our (developing) parenting style.
It took us time, but I’m glad that we finally made the choice to stop trying to change and go against our instincts because of external pressure and advice – in reality, we should have never been under so much pressure to change in the first place! I just wish we hadn’t spent so much time and efforts trying to change something that wasn’t broken. I wish we had the confidence back then to follow our instincts a bit more, but I’m proud of us for figuring it all out at some point. All we really did was to let our baby and our personalities guide us – we didn’t do it straight away, but at some point in our journey we TRUSTED ourselves because no one knows us better than we do. We took ownership of our journey because we understood that we were allowed to bed-share in the same way as I was allowed to change my son’s first nappy. And it feels great. Because it’s empowering.
Sara is a mum of two and BabyNatal teacher for West London.
Find out more about Sara and her classes, including the BabyNatal Sleep Workshops, on our main website here.