Last night my 3-year-old had a nightmare. Because we were in the same bed, when he woke crying my arm automatically wrapped around him and I pulled him close to me. He lay his head on my shoulder and, while his tears soaked through my t-shirt, he told me about his bad dream: he had been left alone in the dark.
I wasn’t surprised. Fear of the dark is inbuilt in every human. It isn’t something that comes about because of trauma, it’s something that’s been honed through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. It’s deeply rooted in our very being, and for good reason.
My son didn’t say he was outside in his nightmare. I assumed he was but really, what’s the difference between inside and outside to him? As adults we know that sleeping in our comfy beds inside our houses is safe. But to a child, there’s no difference at all. I recently heard it said that if you wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping in a separate tent from your child when you’re out camping, then why would you do it at home? To young children, the dark is the dark. Night means vulnerability, predators, the unknown. Humans slept in tribes for a long time; group sleep is how we have survived. Yet now we place our young in a separate room and expect them to just be okay with it. “They need to learn to sleep independently,” we say. Well, I call bullshit.
I don’t think sleeping independently is a skill children need to learn. It leads to no advantages in later life and goes against every survival instinct a child has. Every family is different and has different circumstances, but for the most part I think it’s incredibly stressful on both children and parents to push independent sleep on them.
When I was getting ready for my premature son to be discharged from NICU, a nurse asked me if I knew about safe sleep. I did, I assured her. We’d have him sleeping in a separate bed but in the same room. What I didn’t know at the time, is just how incredibly hard that would be to do. For both my son and for me.
I tried it for maybe a couple weeks. I would put him in a little bed that attached to the big bed, but he wasn’t having it. The second he realized that he had been separated from me, his survival instinct caught up and he started to cry. In desperation I would sit in a chair or on the couch with him on my chest, waiting patiently for him to be in a deep sleep so that I could transfer him to his separate bed, but every time he woke, crying as if he had been left out for the wolves. And to him, he had.
One night I fell asleep while on the couch with him. I awoke just a few minutes later but he had already slipped down a little in my arms. It scared me: I could have smothered him against the couch cushions. In that moment I knew that enough was enough: this was ridiculous. It was far more dangerous me for to accidently co-sleep out of exhaustion and desperation than to just set it up as safely as possible.
I started doing some research. I discovered that I had absolutely no risk factors: I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke or do drugs, I was in perfect health and I was breastfeeding my baby. All of this meant that I had a natural instinct to curl around him in a bed, in a C-shape, so that it would be pretty much impossible to roll on him. And I would wake more often and easily because I was breastfeeding. The only risk factor my baby had was that he had been born prematurely, but he had already fattened up to the size of a newborn and a nurse had taken away his sleep apnea monitor because he didn’t need it anymore. So, I started co-sleeping with him. Or, as we call it these days, sleeping. And I doubled down and wore him in a baby sling for most of the day as well, so that he could sleep on me in the day, too.
The nights were a bit scary initially. The safe sleep message was drummed into me so hard that no matter how much research I read otherwise, I still suffered a bit of the “am I a bad mother for doing this?” anxiety. But I got over this quickly because we just slept so well when we were together. It’s well known that infants sleeping next to an adult (primarily their mother) helps them to regulate their breathing and heart rate. It keeps them calm. I knew this from personal experience in the NICU. Every time I placed my baby on my bare chest for skin-on-skin cuddles I would feel his breathing slow down and I’d watch his heart rate relaxing on the monitor. Now it was time I took that knowledge into my home.
And you know what, co-sleeping kept me calm, too. A few times over the last couple years I’ve had a little experiment of sneaking off to another room to sleep but it’s never really worked. Yet. He’s still so young in the grand scheme of things that my mother-bear instinct of wanting him next to me, safe and protected by me, is still quite strong. I can feel myself relaxing when I lie next to him.
It won’t last forever. He’ll grow older and learn that being in the house is safe, that he’s only a room away from his parents. But he’ll get there in his own time and there’s no rush. I’m just going to enjoy this time with him. No doubt I’ll miss it one day.
So I cradled him close to me after his nightmare and let him cry into my shoulder. He took a great shuddering breath and wailed, “I was waiting for the longest time for you to rescue me.”
“I’ll always rescue you,” I murmured soothingly, “That’s what mummies and daddies are for.” I stroked his hair, wiped away his tears and we snuggled up together. Then I added, “And we’d never leave you alone in the dark.”