Before I had a child, back when I was an expert on parenting, a friend of mine "confessed" to me that her three-year-old still climbed into bed with her and her husband almost every night. I don't remember how I responded, but I cringe at the thought that I probably launched into a no-nonsense directive on how to "Ferberize" the child. Internally, I was probably somewhat smug and thinking that she'd made her bed... so to speak.
A few years later we had Bud, and all my expertise about the "right" way to train a baby to sleep flew out the window. From the moment we settled into our room at the hospital, Bud made it clear that he was not interested in spending time in the bassinet. He wanted to be on a chest - mine or my husband's - where he could scoot in closely and sleep soundly. To be honest, my husband and I were as high-need for contact with Bud as he was with us. Bud's entry into the world had been bittersweet; his identical twin brother was stillborn. So, after nine months of having my heartbeat on one side of him and his brother's heartbeat on the other, I think Bud was frightened when he found himself all alone. And we parents, grieving the loss of one son, could not get close enough to the other.
So it seemed very natural that, upon arriving home from the hospital, we left the cribs empty and crowded together in our bed. The reference book I was using most, because it made the most intuitive sense to me, was The Baby Book by Dr. William Sears, who is a leading proponent of co-sleeping. Dr. Sears thought sharing our bed with Bud was a fine idea, and said that we could be sure that he would decide to leave our bed on his own when he was ready. All was happy for a short time, until everywhere we looked the news was full of warnings against co-sleeping. Having just lost one baby, I panicked at the thought of losing the other and immediately ordered this amazing product, which allowed us to continue to share sleep with Bud without taking any risks. When Bud outgrew the co-sleeper, we moved his crib into our room and he continued to sleep right next to me, though nearly every night he woke at some point and climbed in with us.
Dr. Sears wrote at length about the virtues of "nighttime parenting," and about responding to your child and being with your child to comfort him to sleep instead of trying to get him to self-sooth and learn to "cry it out". The philosophy made intuitive sense to me, especially in light of the loss we had all suffered. Crying it out might help Bud to learn to be more independent, I reasoned, but having just lost his twin he's probably already feeling more independent than he'd like to be. I feared that if I let him cry it out the message he'd hear would be "You're on your own, kid. Make it work." By "parenting" him to sleep, I hoped I was saying "You are never alone. You do not need to worry. I understand." I fully recognized that my need was as great as Bud's; when I returned to work full-time a few months later, my need to connect with Bud at night might even have been greater than his.
And so it continued, me cuddling with Bud until he fell asleep each night, then the three of us huddled together like a cozy little wolf pack, as the months turned into years, as we outgrew the Queen and purchased a King, until we woke one morning to find a big huge five-and-a-half year old in the middle. I consulted the Sears book again, looking for that chapter in which he assured me that my boy would be developmentally ready to move on to his own bed if we let him do it in his own time. Ah, yes, there it was. According to Dr. Sears, my son would be ready to do this when he reached the age of approximately ... three.
I see. Dr. Sears had not accounted for autism when he made this prediction.
At that point I realized that this transition was probably not going to happen all on its own. I created a sticker chart - a cartoon picture of a boy sleeping in a bed, 5 empty squares for stickers, and then a picture of the payoff, a video that Bud knew darned well I wasn't buying any other way. I explained to him that any time he could fall asleep all by himself in his bed, he would get one sticker in the morning, and when he got 5 stickers we would buy the movie. I let him know that this was entirely up to him - if he wasn't ready to try, that was okay and he could try again another time. I also let him know that if he woke up in the night he could come into our room and he would still get his sticker.
It worked beautifully. I think it only took him 6 nights to get 5 stickers, and after a few more sticker charts (each a little longer than the one before) he was falling asleep on his own every night. But like clockwork, each and every night we heard a telltale thump-thump-thump as Bud padded from his room to ours, climbed up the foot of the bed, and squirmed himself into the middle.
We have just passed the one-year mark of Bud falling asleep on his own, and Bud still pads into our room every night at some point. Last night he climbed under the covers and sighed, "This is great." And the thing is, he's right; it is great. I don't have the words to explain it articulately yet, but on a gut level I just know that co-sleeping has made a difference for Bud. I don't think it has made his autism less severe; that's far too simplistic. But I think it has made us more connected. I think it has helped us to read each other better than we would have otherwise, to understand each other on an intuitive level.
In a chapter titled Our Most Important Discovery in her book Making Peace with Autism, Susan Senator described the pivotal moment when she began to understand Nat's need for connection. Kristina Chew at Autismland writes eloquently and frequently about her connection with her son Charlie. In blog after blog written by parents of children on the spectrum, I see examples of great things happening when they are able to connect. How we make the connections that yield success differs from family to family, but that we make the connection seems remarkably consistent. Like Lisa/Jedi, a fellow co-sleeper and recent addition to the world of autism bloggers, I believe that our connection with Bud was cemented with whispers and cuddles and giggles and snuffles amid pillows and flannel sheets.
And so, as Baby Bear said arriving home from his stroll in the woods to find Goldilocks in the house,
"Somebody's been sleeping in my bed ... and he's still there!"