Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What cosleeping is like

When I mention cosleeping to people, a lot of them answer in one of two ways: either "I could never do that! I'd roll onto my baby and smother him!" or, "I could never do that! I wouldn't sleep a wink!" Those who say the former are usually deep sleepers; those who say the latter are usually light sleepers.

My main problem is the second, and not the first. I know how I sleep: I get into the perfect position (on my right side, knees bent, arms in front of me, blanket over my ear) and fall asleep. Eight hours later (wow, how long it's been since I slept eight hours) I wake up in the exact same position. So I know I wouldn't be rolling onto a baby. (Prolactin makes mothers sleep more lightly anyway, so most breastfeeding moms would probably find themselves in the same camp when it came down to it.)

I'll admit it: the first several times I brought the baby into bed with me, I didn't sleep a wink. That's why I didn't stick with it. On the other hand, the first many nights I was married, I didn't sleep a wink either. There's something about having someone else in my sleep space that is really hard for me. Because people aren't perfectly still in their sleep. They twitch. Their breathing changes. They roll over, pull the blankets around, flop onto their other side.

I do this too, which is why I can't even sleep with my cat. I have fallen asleep petting her and woken up with horrible scratches on my hand ... later reconstructing that I had started to grab her as I fell asleep.

So, my twitches and breathing changes kept the baby awake, and his kept me awake. We would lie awake and stare at each other until I finally put him back in his bassinet.

Over time, though, we've learned to sleep together. When he had a cold, he liked to nap upright in my arms. (This sounds like a huge sacrifice for me to do, but it was really just a good chance to catch up on my Google Reader.) At first, I had to be perfectly still. My arm could fall asleep under him, and I had to leave it there. I'd be starving and thirsty and my nose would itch, but if I moved at all, he would wake up.

After a few days of this, though, he got used to my movements. Some clicking around on the computer ... a readjustment of my arm ... until I found I could switch him from one arm to the other, go into the kitchen, and get myself a snack, and he still wouldn't wake. He'd become accustomed to the normal movements that I make.

We do this, as humans. The fact is, hardly anyone sleeps through the night. We wake half up, adjust the blankets, turn over, make sure we are comfortable. We hear a noise, and we take a moment to decide whether it's a noise we have to respond to or one we can ignore. We aren't fully awake when we make these decisions -- I call it "triage mode." Triage mode explains why I wake up the instant the baby makes a peep, unless John is up with him, in which case I sleep right through it. I thought John's alarm didn't wake me, because I always woke up with no memory of hearing it. But he told me I actually sat up, looked around, and resettled when it went off. I'm now adjusted to John's presence in the bed, so a poke of his foot, a flop as he turns over, or a tug at the blankets doesn't wake me -- and yet I don't roll into him, either. I know he's there without having to wake up and be conscious of the fact.

The ideal of cosleeping is to train your triage mode to the sounds and motions of your baby, so that you wake up in the morning saying, "Boy, I feel refreshed -- did the baby wake up at all? I don't remember," and yet the baby is happy because he was fed five times over the course of the night and you didn't roll over him. My mom used to call my sister Juliana her "miracle baby," because she would go to bed resolving to keep Juliana in her crib, but wake in the morning and find her in bed with her. Her brain "triaged" the situation -- baby crying, baby not settling, baby hungry -- and decided cosleeping was the best solution. But she was still enough asleep that no memories were formed.

The best thing that I've found for acclimating yourself to someone else's sleep is to go to bed at the same time. Your brain can freak out when it wakes up and finds a different situation than the one it fell asleep in -- which is why babies cry when they fall asleep in Mama's arms and wake up in a crib. When I coslept with my younger brother Joseph, all went well (relatively) as long as I went to bed when he did. If I stayed up later and joined him once he was asleep, he wasn't aware of my presence and would keep rolling into me and kicking me in the stomach.

Once you're acclimated to a sleep situation, it's the one you prefer and find most comforting. I trained Marko to sleep in his crib, so when he finds himself in his crib, on his tummy, with a thin blanket over his feet, he feels calm and often settles back to sleep. Yet until recently, if he found himself in my arms (and I wasn't walking around, which is his preference) he would wake up crying. Now that he's getting used to sleeping with me, it's no longer a surprise to find me with him when he wakes up, and he more often wakes up smiling.

An added bonus is that I can now comfort him more easily, wherever he wakes up. It used to be that, when he woke up, the best I could do was hold my breath and hope he settled back down. If I touched him or adjusted his position in any way, it woke him up and he'd cry. Now, when I lay him down in his crib, I give him a kiss first, lay him down, leave my cheek against him for a minute, and slowly straighten up. If he's wiggly or half-awake, I can pat his back or stroke his hair. These things, which used to wake him, calm him now because he's used to them.

So, now that we're getting the hang of things (though we still cosleep less than half the time -- just for some naps and sometimes early in the morning), we're both sleeping much better than we used to. He snuggles into my arms and gets comfy. I adjust my position until I'm as close as I'm going to get to my accustomed position and start to feel relaxed myself. (It helps that nursing is a surefire sleep aid, both for him and me. A bit of nursing before we lie down gets us both very drowsy.) At first I never dreamed when napping with him, but now I do. I don't think I sleep very deeply, but I wake up refreshed.

And unlike when I nap in my bed while he's in his crib, he never startles me awake. We always wake up gradually, at the same time. He stirs a little -- my dream starts to dissolve -- he grunts -- I stroke his hair and hush him -- after a few half-awakenings, he opens his eyes and smiles at me.

It really is the best.


Enbrethiliel said...


What a great post! I don't have a baby of my own, but I still love it.

The triage mode is a new idea to me, but it sounds fascinating and I'm going to do more research--starting with my mother's experiences. ;-)

PS--That's a beautiful picture of you and Marko!

Sheila said...

I guess most people would talk about the subconscious, but that's a little too scientific for me to feel quite confident that I know what I'm talking about.

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

Wow! That's really incredible! I mean I realize that people wake up and do things without remembering the next day, but it's really good to know that you can in fact trust yourself not to kill the baby in your sleep, that you do have the right instincts to make this work. Thanks for posting!

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, today I saw that we also need to acclimate ourselves to other people's walking. I had a lunch date with a very nice fellow that involved walking around a lot. I kept opening my own doors--and when we were surprised by the rain, I whipped out my umbrella and held it over his head for half a block, until he remarked that he felt rather unchivalrous letting a lady hold the umbrella.

Now, I'm perfectly happy to have gentlemen open doors for me and hold the umbrella. I had just never walked with him before and didn't know to slow down before reaching a door, much less what to do with that umbrella!

But I suppose I've digressed enough . . . ;-)

Sheila said...

Funny, I had the opposite problem. After a semester at Christendom, I got home and found I had lost the habit of opening doors. I would arrive at a door and stare at it for a second before I remembered that I was supposed to open it! Walking up to the door was unconscious activity, but opening it wasn't a habit (because I had so many polite young men around), so I had to use my conscious mind to do it.

In fact, I experienced some of this today when driving home from work. I was just driving along, thinking my own things, when suddenly I "woke up" and realized I was already at my turn, without having remembered any of my trip so far! If you don't know how the brain works, it's kind of scary to know you were operating a motor vehicle for ten minutes without any conscious memory of what you were doing. And yet, I automatically adjusted speed for various zones, adapted to other cars on the road, kept a good lane position and following distance -- things that take dozens of maneuvers, decisions, and movements of my eyes and hands. My brain knows how to drive! Only when something out of the ordinary (a car swerving, a different route, bad weather) happens does the subconscious alert the conscious to get it to take over.

The brain is a weird and wonderful thing.

In other news, I took a two-hour nap with the baby today and boy did I need it! I'm to the point now that I can roll over and move the baby from one side to the other without disrupting my sleep very much. I still remember it, but in time I probably won't.

Charlemagne said...

Doesn't baby get in the father's way, though?

some guy on the street said...

To Charles the Great: Are you referring, against Uncle Doctor Thursday, to the secret everyone knows? You're not supposed to do that!

Anyways, from everything I've crossed on the question, baby isn't supposed to lie in between, but to one side.

Sheila said...

Yes, a very young baby should be on the opposite side of the father, in case dad kicks. An older baby can be wherever ... I've found that John manages to keep from socking the baby in the face (I guess he's adapted to being married over time, too).

As for "the secret everyone knows" ... let me just say, anyone who really wants to figure out a solution to that problem, can do so pretty easily.

Charlemagne said...

You guys have some dirty minds. I'm just worried about the kid. I'm a deep sleeper, and my wife tells me that I toss and turn quite violently in my sleep. Assuming I don't do any physicial damage to the kid, I'll probably wake him up; then he's cranky, cries, and the whole house is up at 3 o'clock on a Monday morning.

Momma Jorje said...

So very sweet to wake up together!

Kyle said...

My girlfriend tried sleeping with her daughter when she was younger. The daughter put her finger in her mom's mouth and Mommy bit down in her sleep. Bad things can happen.

Sheila said...

Never heard of that happening before. Ouch! But I can't imagine that sort of thing would happen often.

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