Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Along with her blogs here on Thriving, you can find her at the Huffington Post and Boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.
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.