One of the basic principles of attachment parenting is "safe sleep," meaning that a loving parent attends to his or her child's emotional and physical needs at night as well as during the day. Many attachment-minded families find that sleeping together with their baby is the best way to accomplish this. However, the majority of American parents choose to put their children in cribs in separate rooms at night. A surprising number of pet owners, on the other hand, allow their dogs and cats to sleep with them and report that they, and their animals, enjoy it. It's a dog's life -- just not for babies.
I believe the very first time I considered co-sleeping of any kind, I was thinking of dogs. When I was ten, we brought home a new puppy. Mom locked her downstairs in the mudroom and put down newspaper in case she peed. We went to our beds (separate ones) that night to the sound of ceaseless crying and yelping. Mom explained that the puppy was used to sleeping with her litter mates and that she was lonely. This was the first of many times that I begged to be allowed to have our dog sleep with me in my room. I was told the puppy would get used to her new surroundings eventually, and that we had to leave her on her own. This was a normal part of growing up for every dog.
As an adult, I learned that dog trainers seem to agree that sleeping together (at least in the same room) is important for bonding with one's animal, and the practice is far from rare. As Cesar Milan, the "Dog Whisperer," notes, "It is perfectly natural for a dog to sleep with other pack members, and it is also a powerful way to bond with your dog." A 2007 survey by the American Pet Products Association of over 2,500 American pet owners found that a whopping 62% of small dogs, 41% of medium-sized dogs, and 32% of large dogs sleep in bed with their owners. In addition, 62% of cats sleep with their adult owners plus 13% sleep with children. When I adopted my current dog, she wanted to sleep with me and I obliged. This was the first time in my life that I slept with another living creature. I loved it.
After I read about safe infant-parent bed-sharing, it seemed natural to me to sleep with our baby, Jacob, too. What else would we do? Let our dog cuddle with us in bed while our infant cried in the other room? If sleeping together is so beneficial for bonding with a pet, why wouldn't it be great for bonding with baby, too? However, a survey conducted from 1991 to 1999 by the National Centre for Health Statistics found that only 25% of infants always or almost always sleep with their parents and 42% do sometimes. Is it possible that Americans are emotionally better in tune with their pets than their babies?
New articles occasionally warn both pet owners and parents against bed-sharing. There is a rare but real risk of catching a disease by sleeping with a pet. For parents, the fear is rolling over on a baby, but in all cited cases I've come across, risk factors such as smoking, drinking or drug use were involved.
I wanted to do anything and everything that could be helpful to the breastfeeding relationship, including sharing a bed. What we discovered, however, is that co-sleeping is just as important for my partner Ian's relationship with Jacob as it is for mine. I am fortunate to spend hours and hours nursing and wearing our baby during the day, since I am the one who gets to stay home from work. Someone once asked Ian if he is jealous of our breastfeeding relationship, and he responded with an emphatic "No! I get to co-sleep!" Every night, all three of us cuddle together. Especially when he was younger and easier to move around in his sleep, I'd nurse Jacob down and then slide him over to Ian who would tuck his arm around him without even waking up. This way Ian got his fair share of skin-to-skin time and felt well-connected to our baby.
Nowadays our dog frequently snoozes by herself on the couch (maybe because the baby wakes up so much at night!) and then joins us for snuggling in the morning. But if there's a thunder storm, she always ends up in our bed, and from time to time, she chooses to be with us from the start of the night. I have no doubt that Jacob's nighttime preferences will change, too, as he grows and develops. One thing is for certain though: our bed will always be open to whoever needs it.
A modified version of this article first appeared on Trevor's blog, milkjunkies.net