The Knife-Edge of the Family Bed

Parenting is tough. Not just because children are ever-changing, high-needs, ultra-raw humans – although that’s a definite factor.

Part of what makes parenting such an intimidating venture is the judgment of other people, especially other parents. Or rather, it’s the disapproval. (My friend BangtheGeek recently wrote an interesting and forthright exploration of the difference between judgment and condemnation, and it really stuck with me. It’s a good read.) It’s one thing to be regarded by strangers as having bad taste in books or movies or what-have-you; it’s another entirely to be criticized as a bad parent.

I firmly believe that the vast majority of parents are doing their very best job. This doesn’t mean we’re not making mistakes and, frankly, sometimes making parenting decisions we will later regret – we all do that, too. But raising children is something you can’t master. It’s impossible to do perfectly. We parents are just as human as our progeny, with our own flaws, and our own breaking points. We do the best we can with the information, resources, energy, and time we have. And with the kids we have.

In chatting with my high school music teacher after becoming a teacher myself (but prior to becoming a parent), she gave me a great piece of advice I’ve never forgotten: “Just keep in mind that all parents are sending you their best kids.”

This has hit home even more since I had a child of my own. I now know for sure that kids have their own dispositions, which can (we hope) be influenced, but not really changed, by their upbringing.

Also, families have varied histories and have been through all kinds of things on the way to the present moment. If we are looking at a mom we don’t know in the grocery store, and mentally denigrating her for raising her voice to a child who is having a tantrum, we are kinda being jerks. We have no idea what led to this, and how much that parent and that child have been through that day – or that year – or whatever. We have NO IDEA if we would do any better at all, if put in the same position.

I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as bad parenting, or that there’s not plenty of it out there. I freely condemn the practice of giving your children nothing but packaged crap in their lunch every day; I can’t abide parents who verbally or physically abuse the people they created; I firmly disagree with Tiger Mothering because although I believe in limits and occasional tough love, I also think being a kid is a pretty important part of childhood. And parents who read and obey this book deserve to have their children taken away from them (and sometimes do – especially when a child dies by their hand).


Just reading excerpts from this makes me want to use the very baddest words I know. Why would you ever have children if you hate children?? And don’t get me started on the fact that these people call themselves Christians.

Sorry, bit of a tangent. What I really want to talk about today is the family bed; namely, co-sleeping, in relation to these images:

Co-Sleep-baby-knifeco-sleeping baby with a knife

These come from a public service ad campaign in Milwaukee, where we’re told nine babies this year have died from sharing a bed with their parent(s). This Globe and Mail article quotes Bevan Baker, Milwaukee’s Commissioner of Health: “What is even more shocking and provocative is that 30 developed and underdeveloped countries have better [infant death] rates than Milwaukee.”

This sound bite is (unwittingly, I’m sure) ironic. Not because it is an alarming and incongruous statistic – though I don’t deny that it is. The fact that the Commissioner chose to compare urban Wisconsin with underdeveloped countries is ironic, because I’d bet my bottom dollar that in those countries, most babies are not sleeping in cribs. They are sleeping with their parents, just as they have for centuries.

I’m not contesting that these infant deaths are tragic, awful beyond belief. As you know, I could never make light of baby loss. It just angers me when people spread hysteria in such a way as to make caring, hardworking, mindful parents feel like criminals.

We have had a family bed ever since E was born. Although we knew people who co-slept with their kids, we hadn’t been planning on it. But as parents know, your whole universe shifts when you have a baby. I just needed my tiny guy close to me – didn’t even want to put him as far away as the cradle beside the bed. He slept with us from day one.

We loved it. When E was nursing, it was so nice to simply shift over and feed him instead of having to get out of bed, become vertical, and shuffle down the hall to a different room. It was cozy and snuggly, and we never had to miss him or wonder how he was doing. If he had been in distress, I would have known. I couldn’t imagine him being in a separate room.

We were very careful that our own blankets and pillow never encroached on his space. I never worried that I would crush him: I was always aware of his position, and quickly learned to mold my own position accordingly. (In this news clip, Dr. McKenna describes this as “sleep architecture”.)

As E got bigger and kickier, we were also wanting to wean him from night feedings. We got a toddler bed with rails on three sides, and pushed it up against our queen bed. And that’s where he slept, quite well. That’s where he sleeps to this day.

We continue to love it. If he has a bad dream, or if he’s sick, or if he just needs to remind himself that he’s safe, we are right there. He does still sometimes wake up in the night to have a drink – and if occasional wake-ups are the price for having the cuddliest kid on the block, I pay it gladly.

After Sebastian died, we appreciated more than ever having our firstborn in the room with us. That need for closeness was elemental.

I know it’s not for everyone. I absolutely support any parent who says, “I could never do that – I’m afraid I’d crush her,” or “I could never do that – I know I would never sleep,” because those parents are aware of what will work for them, for their family to function properly.

I hate to think that there are families out there who don’t realize that, for whatever reason, the family bed is not for them. Dr. McKenna mentions, for example, that mothers who smoke should not co-sleep, because those babies are less responsive.

I don’t know what a more detailed study would reveal about the circumstances surrounding the Milwaukee infant deaths. It seems fishy to me that co-sleeping is blamed for these deaths as an “unsafe sleeping habit”, but when babies die of SIDS in their cribs, we don’t blame the cribs as an “unsafe sleeping habit”. There are lots of reasons why babies die, and many of them are beyond our ken. It does not help matters to jump to panicked conclusions.

One thing I do know is that lots of parents co-sleep or bed-share, and don’t readily talk about it, unless they know they’re in similar company. This ad campaign is exactly why not. It’s basically accusing us, and parents like us, of gross criminal negligence.

And it’s also saying that my maternal instincts, and those of millions of mothers throughout history, all over the world, are for… baby poop. Can that be right?



10 thoughts on “The Knife-Edge of the Family Bed

  1. Mama says:

    When you girls were born at Mac, I often would fall asleep – in a high hospital bed, mind you – with my baby right next to me after nursing, and I never rolled over on you or pushed you off on the floor, and NO NURSE EVER CAME AND TOOK YOU AWAY. They knew.

  2. Suzanne says:

    This is such a well articulated response to this issue. I have so many mixed feelings about it and have been trying to organize a post about it. Maybe I’ll just post a link to yours! Thank you!

  3. Auntie CL says:

    my experience in hospital was the same as the previous commentator’s.

    but as to your remarks that: “… raising children is something you can’t master. It’s impossible to do perfectly. We parents are just as human as our progeny, with our own flaws, and our own breaking points.”
    i am (previously and still) definitely a flawed parent, but there are moments when you get to have some positive feedback – like having your child sidle up to you in a store and say in a low confidential voice: “I’m really glad you taught us not to whine.”
    plus there’s this other miraculous thing that can happen: kids can grow up to be wonderful, caring, responsible adults even after all the parental mistakes! what luck!!!!

    • diblog says:

      Auntie CL, yay for positive feedback! I LOVE that anecdote about the whining. With E, I feel I can take some credit that he’s learning good manners and extensive vocabulary, but just as you say – if he grows up to be wonderful, caring, and responsible, I will attribute that to luck! and his own personal awesomeness.

  4. emerge says:

    CL, how old was the child in the anecdote? I’m picturing him about 7, but when he opens his mouth he has a really deep voice. It’s pretty funny.

  5. Mary says:

    OMG, I can’t believe that training book is even able to be published and circulated!! Those are the kinds of kids that will eventually grow up to continue the cycle of abuse. Awful!!

    We never planned on co-sleeping but we did exclusively for the first month of her life and now we start her out in the crib then bring her to bed with us when she wakes up to eat. It’s so sweet when she reaches for me in her sleep and reassuring for me to open my eyes and see her sleeping peacefully next to me. It’s worked out beautifully for us and we all get lots of sleep in the night.

    And E is the cuddliest kid ever!!

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