I’ll never forget the night my husband and I gave up on co-sleeping, probably because it was the first night we brought our baby into our bed.
Our son was about four months old. Up until that point had been spending his nights in an Arms’ Reach mini-co-sleeper, a type of three-sided crib designed to attach to the side of our mattress. For four months, it had worked well. Then one day we realized he was close to outgrowing the mini and, unfortunately, our bedroom was not large enough to fit a full-sized co-sleeper.
It was at that point that we tried what I well knew parents had been doing all over the world for thousands of years. We put the baby between us. Co-sleeping, I strongly believed, was the most natural thing in the world – our culture one of the few intent on quartering newborns off in a separate nursery for them to sleep (or cry) in isolation from the rest of the family. In other words, I wanted to co-sleep, and my husband was plenty willing to give it a try.
But at some point between, say, two and four a.m., one of us turned on the light and uttered the three words that would eventually be spoken every time thereafter that we attempted what was supposed to be this very natural and nurturing act: “This isn’t working.”
Maybe it was us. Both my husband and I are light sleepers. We toss and turn. We talk in our sleep. We live with a spoiled dog that whimpers and whines if she’s not under the covers, between someone’s feet.
There was no way around it; we were bad co-sleepers. Or maybe it was the baby. He’s big. By the age of four months he’d reached the ninetieth percentile for height and weight. And, like his mama, he snores. Throughout the night he often wakes up and cries for a minute or two, then falls back asleep. Even though he was too young at that point to move himself around much, he consistently and miraculously ended up sleeping horizontally in the center of the mattress, arms and legs splayed, smacking or kicking us in the face, chest, or groin, every ten or so minutes.
It seemed to us we had two choices. We could move into another apartment with a larger bedroom and buy a California King, super-sized mattress, or we could move him into his own crib. We chose the latter. There was no way around it; we were bad co-sleepers.
I probably would have chalked this up as a personal failure, just one of the many reasons no one was going to nominate me for the attachment-parenting mama-of-the-year award. Only after talking to a number of friends who’d had similar experiences did it occur to me that something more might be going on.
It was this suspicion that led me to Eyal Ben-Ari, a professor of anthropology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has observed first-hand how co-sleeping works in Japan, just one of many Eastern countries where it is the rule and not the exception.
In one of several articles on the subject, Ben-Ari describes how among Japanese families, a child sleeps with its mother until the next child is born, and then she or he relocates to sleep with the father or one of the grandparents. It is not unusual for this pattern to continue until the child reaches the age of ten. Such “overcrowding,” he explains, is not a function of lack of space, because even when there are enough rooms for all of the family’s members, many families prefer to sleep in the same room. Whereas many Western parents view a child’s sleeping in his own bed as an important milestone toward independence, the Japanese emphasis is on promoting a sense of closeness and security in small children to help them become more confident and capable in the long run.
So what, I wondered, did the Japanese know that I didn’t? Is there something about American or Western culture that makes us (some of us, anyway) so ill-suited to the practice? According to Ben-Ari, there is. As he sees it, our comfort level with co-sleeping is not something that begins to develop when we become parents, but much earlier, when as babies and children ourselves we learn or intuit the cultural norm for relating to other bodies.
“We all walk around with this assumption that the body ends with the epidermis,” he explains. “But in societies that are much more relational, there’s a stronger link between caretakers and their children. From a very young age, you learn a way of relating to the world that is very much physical. In Japanese culture, they learn from a very young age to relate to other bodies. For example, from what I’ve seen, American mothers tend to be much more verbal with their children while Japanese mothers tend to be much more physical.”
I wondered, did the Japanese know that I didn’t? For someone like myself, he implied, who grew up sleeping in my own bed, in my own room, wiling my way into my parents’ arms after a nightmare or a spotting of that daunting monster in my closet, but generally confined to my own, private, at times, lonely space where there was no tossing and turning, no snoring, no stray elbows and ankles with which to contend, it should be no surprise that trying to get a decent night’s sleep with another tiny (or in my son’s case, not so tiny), body in constant contact with my own would prove challenging.
“Did it prove challenging for you?” I asked the sociologist. I assumed that he who had devoted himself to the study of Japanese sleep patterns would have practiced them with his own family.
“No,” he said. “Because we didn’t try it.” It turns out Ben-Ari grew up with a sleeping arrangement about as far from the one he studied in Japan as one can get. Growing up on a kibbutz in Israel, he not only slept in a separate bed from his parents; he slept under a separate roof in a “children’s house,” the customary practice of the time. For him and his family, such a reversal simply didn’t feel right. Regardless of how engaged he was by the Japanese model, by how well it worked and how deeply ingrained it seemed for the families he studied, when it came to his own family, he says, “we had to do what felt natural to us.”
And as for me and my family, I suppose we’re doing the same, juggling what sounds good with what feels right, hoping for the best as I rock my son and sing to him and wish him the sweetest of dreams, and then close the door between us.