Confession: this pediatrician is a sleep softie

by Claire McCarthy on January 31, 2012

This may not be a great confession to make as a pediatrician, but when it comes to sleep and kids, I am a total softie.

Our kids slept in our bed. We slept in theirs (which was very cramped in the toddler bed, and didn’t do great things to the frame)—or lay next to them as they drifted off to sleep. We sat on the floor, telling stories and singing lullabies and slowly edging out of the bedroom as their breathing got deep and regular. We went in again and again to retrieve the stuffed animal from under the bed or to investigate the scary noise or possible spider. When they woke in the middle of the night, we held them until they went back to sleep—sometimes night after night.

Our children have always had a reasonable bedtime (even if we ignore it sometimes), we’ve made sure their sleep is safe, and there has never been (or will be) a TV in a bedroom. And now that they are older, everyone sleeps just fine. But when they were little, it never really mattered to us whether they slept independently, or all night. We broke all sorts of “sleep rules” on a regular basis.

Not what a pediatrician is supposed to say.

I am not going to argue for a moment that uninterrupted sleep isn’t a good thing. It’s a great thing. I’ve probably whittled months if not years off my life, and lost a few brain cells, from all the interrupted sleep I had between 1991, when my first child was born, and 2009 when my sixth (at 4) stopped breastfeeding and moved definitively into his own bed.

But for us, at the time, uninterrupted sleep wasn’t so important. Breastfeeding was important, and it’s really hard to do that for any length of time without some co-sleeping. Just being close to the kids was important—our third child was born disabled and died in infancy, and, well, for us there was nothing better than falling asleep with a cheek on our child’s head (D. H. Lawrence had it right when he wrote, “Sleep is most perfect when it is shared with a beloved”.) For us, holding everybody closer was part of moving forward.

We were also lazy. It was just easier to get up and climb in bed with someone, or bring them into our bed, than work at getting them to go back to sleep by themselves. We knew they would eventually, and they did. We were fine with “eventually” being kindergarten and not infancy. That’s it, in a nutshell: We were fine. We were getting enough sleep overall, we weren’t persistently grouchy (I won’t deny that we had some grouchy days after bad nights), it worked for our needs and our life.

Personally, I think that as a culture we are a bit too hung up on getting our kids scheduled and independent practically from the time they are born. But I’m not out to convince anyone of that as a pediatrician. When I talk to parents about their kids and sleep, aside from finding out if what they are doing is safe and healthy, what I most want to know is whether what they are doing works for them. If it does, we move on to the next topic. If it doesn’t, I’ll work with them to find a solution. That solution might be getting their kids to sleep independently and through the night—but it might be something else.

For what it’s worth, I am not a softie on everything. I’m really strict about eating vegetables, limiting TV time, and homework. I will not abide lies, everyone has to exercise, and no matter how angry my kids might get with each other, I insist on basic standards of kindness. We all find our way as parents, and decide what’s most important to us.

Honestly, there aren’t all that many absolutes when it comes to raising kids. You must love them, really love them so they know it. You must do everything you can to keep them safe and healthy. You must keep their future in mind, because at some point they will move on and you want them to have a good and choice-filled life. But there are literally millions of ways to do these things—billions, really. As many ways as there are families.

One bit of advice, if you are going to curl up in bed with your kid: Don’t buy a toddler bed.

 

To learn about how Children’s Hospital Boston helps children with sleep problems, visit the website of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders.  And for more information on safe sleep, read “A Parent’s Guide to Safe Sleep” from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

12 comments

  • Janacb

    wow, it’s so nice to see a pediatrician not espousing the usual AAP guidelines against co-sleeping. Thanks for sharing this confession and validating what many parents have known from the beginning!

  • Neal Crenshaw

    Very well said. And, I heartily agree based on first hand experience. Nice to see a doctor “think outside the box”.

    Best Regards.

  • dk

    Dr. McCarthy–What are the necessary precautions to take when cosleeping with your infant?  My 2 months old is by all accounts a good sleeper, but we generally have a stretch of time in the very early morning when bringing her in bed is the only way for us to get sleep (and be ready to face the day when her big brother and sister wake at 6). I’m so terrified by the warnings against co-sleeping but know that many parents do it safely. Thanks!

  • Twinkies48

    Thanks so much for saying it!!  Luckily, our pediatrician said the very same things to me when I was having trouble with the sleep situation when my twins were babies.  One would go right to sleep in her crib, one would cry all night.  We determined that my priority was for them to be safe, feel safe and get enough rest.  And co-sleeping has worked!

  • clairemccarthymd

    I can’t tell you how to make co-sleeping completely safe,
    because as the AAP says, the safest place for a baby to sleep is in the same room
    with the parents but in his or her own sleeping space. There are also a lot of
    factors particular to each baby and each family and home that come into play
    when it comes to safe sleep.  Your doctor
    is your best resource.  Kidshealth.org
    has some information on making sleep as safe as possible that might be helpful:
    http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/sleep/cosleeping.html

  • clairemccarthymd

    The AAP isn’t wrong–the link at the end of my blog is a good resource for finding out how to keep sleeping babies as safe as possible, and it’s important for families to read as they make decisions about how they and their children are going to sleep.

  • Paulina Lopeznoriega

    My Ped said to let him Cry It Out… I was sooo tired after 6.5 of waking up to breastfeed, that I did…  It was only one night and thankfully it was no more than 15 to 20 minutes. He kind of understood that I was there (he sleeps in his crib at the end of our bed). I still feeel guilty but I felt even more guilty when I was kranky and tired as hell to the limit of being hysterical and yell to my older daughter….

  • eve

    bravo. sleep is critical to good health.

  • Md

    Well said! I agree as a parent and a pediatrician.

  • Kira

    How nice to see a ped with her head screwed on to the fact that, gasp, children are people too and their needs are just as everyone else in the family.  I would be so crushed if I woke up from a bad dream or had a horrible toothache in the night or dropped my pillow and couldn’t get to it and my husband left me crying by myself because his sleep was so much more important than my needs.  Why do we do this to our kids?

    I’ve been pretty sleep deprived since my son was born two years ago, but somehow, we just make it work.  And there are nights, as cliche and cheesy as it sounds, when the moon is peering in his window and I see his little hand relax as he drifts back off to my singing that I think, “What did I do to get so lucky?” 

  • http://www.avocadobaby.webs.com/ Stacy Lewis

    So happy to see another doctor backing up a family choice to bed share.  It brought so much peace and comfort.  We really did enjoy it and miss it at times.

  • Mhwbcw92

    Your blog is great!  As a parent of 2 kids (one is almost 14 and severely disabled) and the other one is 11 (going on 30) both kids are pretty well adjusted. Your blog describes many of the things we have done and expected from both our children.  We have spent many many many moments of our lives comforting them, sleeping in the same bed (hospital beds aren’t so comfy), holding them, loving them and expecting them to respect each other, us and others.  I try not to be to schedule crazy but used to be.  I have realized that a schedule doesn’t make them who they are… they make themselves who they are. Even our daughter who has no voice has learned to communicate (FINALLY) with the help of technology, a lot of patience and practice. Our son has learned life lessons that most adults will never learn…. both are so adjusted.  Sure we have lost a few brain cells from lack of sleep yet the pure pleasure of being a parent is so worth it all!  It’s so nice to finally hear a doctor express how they really feel!  Believe me I have met a whole lot of pediatric docs thru the last 13+ years with our daughter and some are so much more compassionate and honest than others…

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