Help! There’s a Baby in My Bed!

Appeared in The Psychotherapy Networker, November 1999.

The consensus among my friends who are family therapists was:  No sleeping with baby.  I asked our midwife, a woman who wore natural fabrics, specialized in home births, and left granola in the waiting room for her patients like candy. “Yuck,” she said.

wayne_scott_square_blackAfter we got pregnant with our first child, I assumed like all new parents we’d have to buy a crib.  Naively, knowing about as much about actual hands-on infant care as I knew about water ballet, I thought the big decisions would be choosing cartoon motifs and colors for the baby’s bedroom: Winnie the Pooh or Barney?  Lilac or mint-green walls?

But then my wife, a pregnant earth mother trapped in a bureaucrat’s body, got a job that required us to move to Portland, Oregon, home of patchouli-dipped hippies who never wanted to let go of the 60’s.  On the streets of our new home town, we were constantly running into “kangaroo kids,” babies slung in cotton pouches close to their  parents’ bodies.  Sometimes, when we’d speak with these parents, they’d try to persuade us to adopt their unconventional  baby-rearing beliefs.

They didn’t believe in  cribs.  Their babies slept in their beds.  They nursed on demand.  There were no schedules.  This, they explained,  is how babies are raised in cultures from Africa to Southeast Asia.

These parents were followers of Dr. William Sears, the founder of “attachment parenting,” who became infamous when he suggested, in Nighttime Parenting,  that parents share their beds with their babies.   Mainstream baby books often bash poor Dr. Sears, if only by implication. What to Expect: The First Year, the best-selling Bible of nervous, first-time parents, criticizes the family bed: leaving a baby to cry it out alone at bedtime, the authors admonish, “may indeed seem cruel and inhuman punishment, but it is actually the best way to respond to a baby’s need to learn to fall asleep on his own.”

Thus runs the conventional wisdom.  But, as one tie-dyed dad told us, as my wife and I were walking during the latter part of her pregnancy, discussing a myriad of parenting quandaries, “Don’t let the Man tell you what to do.”

My wife, who planned to continue working her grueling twelve-hour days after our baby was born, nodded.  She liked the idea of the family bed.  But because I was trained as a family therapist and planning to be at home with our little tyke, I was unsure.

I called up my old supervisor, a family therapist and tough Chicagoan who’s ten years older than I am and told her what we were thinking.

“Are you nuts!?” she said.

I explained the logic of attachment parenting.

“What about individuation?” she asked.  “Worse,” she warned, “What about rolling over on her?”

“They say that doesn’t happen unless you’re drunk or obese,” I said.  “And Dr. Sears says babies aren’t supposed to be individuated.”

“I need my sleep,” she said.  “My husband and I need time together.  Our baby can nap in my arms during the daytime, but that’s it.”

The consensus among my friends who are family therapists was:  No sleeping with baby.  I asked our midwife, a woman who wore natural fabrics, specialized in home births, and left granola in the waiting room for her patients like candy.

“Yuck,” she said.

We decided to take the plunge anyway.  Several facts influenced our decision: our best friends were advocates; their attachment-enhanced babies were alert, fun-loving kids; I didn’t want to turn my office into a nursery; and we couldn’t really find a crib we liked.

Our baby, Miriam, was born and we all became, however improbably, bedfellows. Our king-sized bed never seemed so small.  At first my wife sheltered our daughter between herself and the wall.  (Apparently, dads lack the same intuitive radar that prevents moms from rolling over on their offspring.) Later, Miriam slept between us, with her head at my wife’s breast and her feet against me.  While my wife had to deal with night-time nursing, I experienced baby-sized karate kicks against my spine, my stomach, my head.

Concerned neighbors smiled and said, “You must be exhausted.”  But, except for occasional nightmares about a pint-sized Bruce Lee, I rarely woke up at night.  When Miriam was hungry or scared, she had a short way to the breast.  Like most new mothers, regardless where their babies sleep, my wife looked frazzled.

But sex was a problem.  Although Dr. Sears makes the famous statement,

“Every room in the house is a potential love chamber,” the floors in our house are hardwood and littered with Legos, the couches are narrow, and none of the chairs were meant for two.  One hip friend who is an attachment mother confided, “We’ve tried having sex when baby’s asleep.  We’re quiet and we stay under the covers.”

“Hasn’t she ever woken up?” I asked.

“Once,” she said.  “She opened her eyes.  We stayed under the covers and finished and she fell back asleep as if nothing had happened.”

Her husband, overhearing, said, “Thanks.”

So sex took on a new edge.  Without the time and space for the usual dallying, we built pillow barricades and whispered less tender things.  “Do you think she can hear?”  “I think she’s moving!” and “Is this a Primal Scene?!”

Our baby got bigger.  When Miriam was 9 months old, we began to transition her to what I hoped would soon be independent sleep.  We would lie down in bed with her as she fell asleep, move her to her playpen once she was snoozing, and then move her back with us when we went to bed.  Nighttime became a game of musical beds, with us tip-toeing and trying not to wake her.

One night, while my wife and I were changing into our pajamas as the baby slept in the playpen, I reached out to her and suggested: “Honey, why don’t we leave her there and see how long she goes?”

My wife bit her lip.  “What if I have to nurse her?”

“But she hasn’t been wanting to nurse,” I said, hopefully removing my pajama bottoms. “You said she’s been weaning herself.”

My wife looked anxiously at the playpen, then glanced at her alarm clock, set to wake her at 5:30 a.m., long before Miriam would arise.  “I’ve been meaning to tell you my plan,” she said.  “I thought we’d keep her in our bed until we get her a big girl bed.”

“A big girl bed?” I asked, downcast, pulling back on my pajama bottoms.  “Isn’t that what she has when she’s 3?”

“I really don’t think I’m ready yet.”

So our funny, squirmy, attachment-enhanced daughter, who is now over a year old, is still in our bed.  Every room in the house has become, however uncomfortably, however improbably, a “love chamber.”  No matter what exasperating mischief Miriam has done that day, no matter how demanding she’s been, or what hurricane-like damage I have had to clean up in the play area, I am lulled to sleep at night by a lingering, bird’s-eye view of her sleeping face—a face that reminds me of the security and peace she feels, the effect of a sacrifice that seems, each moment I get closer to my own sleep, like a pleasure.

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