Monday, January 23, 2006

Somebody's been sleeping in my bed

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!"


kristina said...

And in seeking to connect with our children, we've also become connected to so many others, parents like you.

Another autism mom once said to me as we talked about our sons' first years and vaccines and schools, "I'm so sorry we had to meet because of this." This, being autism.

I've never been able to agree with that statement--I take much heart that a disability stereotypically (and altogether wrongly) about those who "want" to be alone has made so many connections and so much community for us.

Eileen said...

"Somebodies" have been sleeping in my bed too! They both start out in their own beds (with me laying with them of course), but still one or the other (last night both) end up in my bed. I feel it is also our way of connecting.

The Jedi Family of Blogs said...

Thanks for the link MOM-NOS! I decided to begin blogging in large part because I had been reading many of the blogs in this ring. It sure does make a difference to share our stories! It's so good to hear about your experiences with Dr. Sears' book & the comfort you've gotten from the co-sleeping connexion with your son. I'm a great believer in charting, too...

gretchen said...

I'm sorry to learn of the loss of Bud's twin. I can completely understand why you, your husband, and Bud would all want to hold on extra tight to each other!

It's interesting to consider, as we've discussed before, what the difficult circumstances of our sons' births mean in the bigger picture of their autism.

I regret to say that Henry has NEVER ONCE climbed into our bed. When we first put him in a big boy bed, we waited to hear the sound of those feet, but it never came. I, however, have been known to wake up in the middle of the night and climb into HIS bed with him, when I need that "connection."

Christine said...

I am a huge believer in co-sleeping and we've done it with both kids. As a working mother who nurses I love having my little guy next to me through the night. I am much more rested and I get that extra time to cuddle. Moving Oliver to his own room/bed was challenging though and took a long time! Like Gretchen I still find myself occassionally curled up in his bear bed for a little while a couple of times a week. They won't be this little forever!

Anonymous said...

The whole co-sleeping issue is so fraught, isn't it? I was just reading one of Ayelet Waldman's mysteries, in which the main character and her husband are dealing with an infant being nursed and two bigger kids crawling into their bed. I have two kids, six and four. The six-year-old has only stayed out of our bed since her last birthday, at which point I started charging her $1 per night. I just couldn't deal with her quirks: she likes to sleep in the bottom half of the bed. The four-year-old goes to sleep every night in her own bed, while I lie there next to her. But sometime in the night flap-flap-flap-flap, here come her little feet.

I love the connection, but I'm missing the sleep. I'll probably let her go until she's six, too. Someday the annoyance will outweigh the pleasure and the comfort. But if six weeks being thumped with in an arm cast didn't push me over the edge, it'll probably be a while.

emily said...

Should I even tell you that my nine-year-old comes visiting most nights? She's slim, though. Her six-year-old brother, not so much. The nine-year-old's on the spectrum, and I also in desperation found myself co-sleeping because, frankly, it was the only way to get ANY sleep. My daughter was the exception to every parenting bromide ever: that they'd eat if that was all you fed them, they'd sleep through the night eventually, outgrow the terrible twos, ad nauseum. OTOH, she is extraordinarily cuddly, still.

Anonymous said...

hee. We call those "Velcro Nights" when Sol comes into bed and snuggles up tight against us. Sol's autism specialist said that BECAUSE he coslept for such an extended period of time that may be one of the reasons he's so cuddly now and seeks out contact. Sure, he still loves Big Squish Pressure (like being squarshed with pillows or even our whole body) but he also loves just to sit in your lap when he's tired or cranky.

tulipmom said...

I've stopped by MANY times but this is my first time commenting.

I couldn't have read this post at a better time. We just this week starting letting our 6 1/2 year old son climb into bed with us after YEARS of insisting we would NEVER allow such a thing. We changed our tune out of desperation; we simply cannot continue to function without sleep.

For the past year he has been waking up with nightmares between 1 and 3 am. at least 3-4 nights a week. His anxiety is off the charts. One of us climbs into his bed and tries to calm him, but the end result is always the same: Mom/Dad and the little guy downstairs in the family room plopped in front of the TV, no one sleeping.

When I saw how quickly he went back to sleep as soon as lay down in our bed I started thinking that maybe co-sleeping isn't such a bad thing. Our son has always been a snuggler and close physical contact has always soothed him.

Anyway, this sleeping thing is still a work in progress for us (as is everything else!), but your post was especially timely. Thank you.

Udayan Dave said...

Can autism spectrum disorders such as anxiety, Asperger's and ADD be prevented by co-sleeping? I think that the connection that a baby develops with their mother and father is an essential first step in making connection with others. Cosleeping which is an important component in making this connection probably reduces the risk of autism spectrum disorders but very little research is done in this area because of the profession bias against cosleeping.

There is no scientific research behind doctor's recommendation to put a new born babies to sleep in a crib/cot. In fact SIDS or crib death or cot death in England became prevalent when babies were put to sleep on their own on their stomachs. Again doctors recommended this for the longest time until they studied Asian babies in Hong Kong who slept with their moms. Autism, Asperger's and other childhood anxiety and behavioral disorders were discovered here and in Europe. I don't know how often such disorders occur in Asia where moms sleep with their babies.

I believe the human connection that develops from cosleeping is vital to a child’s early development. Many developmental problems arise when this initial caring step is deleted due to recommendations by physicians and academics. Not enough research is being done about the beneficial impact of cosleeping on autism spectrum disorders because these professionals don’t want to admit that they have made an even bigger mistake (far greater than just SIDS) with regards to basic childhood development. Parents continue to be misguided by these professional and media which I think is a travesty of scientific research that borders on ignorance.

Jeevita said...

I have co-slept with my son since the minute he was born. He is 3 now and still sleeps with us. Last week we got a diagnosis of him being on the spectrum. So I don't think co-sleeping can prevent autism but perhaps it can help with the connection...

Diane said...

So glad I found this, even years after it was posted. Our daughter is now almost 2 1/2, given a "provisional" ASD diagnosis at 14 months old. One of the reasons we were initially worried (in addition to no words, not responging to her name, etc.)was that it seemed very hard to connect with her. I always let her fall asleep with me, then put her into her crib--she used to wake up maybe once or twice, but always returned to sleep after I picked her up. I also had a pre-existing bias against co-sleeping. But then at about 20 months she started to keep waking up so often that it just became easier to keep her with us the whole time. Which was, we both beleive, a real turning point in her ability to connect with us. She's made truly amazing progress in the 15 months she's been getting intensitve EI services. Her ability to emotionally connect with people, including us, has just blossomed. No way to truly know if the co-sleeping helped, but it seems to us that it has. My husband and I are both researchers, and would love to see a formal study of the impact of co-sleeping for kids on the spectrum. This post is the first discussion I've seen about it. I sort of feel that my daughter's constant re-awakening was her way of asking for more connection when she had very little ability to communicate.

Anonymous said...

Our daughter was diagnosed with Autism & PDD-NOS (dual diagnosis).
We deliberately chose to let her sleep with us in order to calm her and give her opportunities to be close to us to facilitate a chance to connect with us. It really did work, we also did a Gluten free and Dairy free diet with ASD-Plex and DMG as well as B6, Magnesium and Zinc supplementation. She is 11 now and an A student who is loving, kind, connected to others and no longer on the spectrum! Yes, do co-sleep! Look your child lovingly in the eyes, snuggle them in and ignore those who would tell you otherwise! Alannah