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Until you’ve had a baby, you cannot imagine how many conversations can be focused around sleep. Before baby, the sleep process was a relatively simple procedure: go to bed when tired, shut eyes and wake up eight hours later.
Yet once you have a baby, sleep becomes a highly debated topic; it’s much talked, judged, and boasted about; and, at times, it’s controversial.
Despite shelves of books devoted to baby sleep routines, online forums full of tired mums asking for help, and a thriving industry of sleep consultants, it seems sleep and your baby is still a confusing and frustrating journey to navigate. Throw the term “co-sleeping” into the mix and you’re stepping into a whole new arena of sleep ideology.
Watch a mum in one of Hong Kong’s playgroups “confess” that she is co-sleeping with her baby and you might catch uncomfortable silences from her fellow mum friends. In a world of structured sleeping schedules, made popular by the likes of Gina Ford and Gary Ezzo, a co-sleeping arrangement, often included as part of the wider attachment parenting philosophy, is very much the bad boy of sleeping arrangements.
Co-sleeping simply means that babies and young children sleep close to one or both parents, as opposed to in a separate room.
For the majority of mothers and babies in the world, co-sleeping is the norm. In much of southern Europe, Asia, Central and South America, and Africa, mothers and babies typically share sleep. In many cultures, co-sleeping is expected until children are weaned, with some continuing after.
Yet for those of us from the West, there seems to be a large degree of anxiety around co-sleeping. What’s going on?
Ultimately, the concerns come down to safety. Compared to using a separate infant bed, views on the safety of co-sleeping and its effect on babies’ health vary. Google the heart-breaking term “SIDS” and “co-sleeping” and you’re right in the middle of the hot debate. Reports are released almost every month from reputable scientific bodies and research studies: on one side is evidence supporting the claim that co-sleeping will increase the chances of SIDS; on the other, that co-sleeping can actually reduce the risk of SIDS. Mums who have given birth at private and public hospitals in Hong Kong, including Matilda International Hospital and Queen Mary Hospital, report back how they were reprimanded by hospital staff if they brought their babies into bed with them and were told – in no uncertain terms – not to co-sleep. No wonder parents who do choose to co-sleep feel reluctant to advertise it.
Yet, ask many Hong Kong mums discreetly, and you’ll find that co-sleeping is more common than you might expect. Many parents are co-sleeping with their babies – they’re just not telling their friends, in-laws and doctors.
So why would a parent, who does not have the cultural pressures to keep their baby in the same room or bed, choose to co-sleep?
Hulda Thorey, a registered Hong Kong midwife and director and founder of Annerley, has co-slept with all four of her children. “In the first days, co-sleeping was not a concept for us. It was just the most natural way. We wanted them nearby; otherwise, we were constantly waking up and checking them,” she says.
“Co-sleeping for me is not a lifestyle. It is the most natural thing for me when you are a busy full-time working mother who likes to breastfeed for months,” Hulda says. Both she and her husband have always agreed. “We have no ‘hippy’ tendencies – we just both love the sight of their faces next to us when we wake up and they see us.”
It’s this sentiment, of not following a sleeping concept or routine, that led Becca Marthinuessen to discover her family were natural co-sleepers, too.
“When I first had my baby girl, I tried to follow the Baby Whisperer routine by Tracy Hogg. It did not work for any of us at all. My baby was hungry and we were both exhausted all the time. I naturally started lying down, wondering if I could feed her at the same time. This nursing while lying down turned into us co-sleeping at night too,” Becca says.
Becca discovered The Baby Book by Dr Sears, a philosophy which promotes co-sleeping and attachment parenting. “That changed everything,” she says. “I started to apply his techniques and it all worked. [The baby] gained weight, we were all sleeping better, and everyone was saying, ‘Your baby looks so much happier’.”
Of course, you need to provide a safe sleeping environment. Hulda says, “Make sure they don’t fall off the bed, make sure quilts cannot cover them, make sure the air quality is good and they sleep on their back. Don’t take medicine or alcohol before sleeping. Then, once they are older they’ll take over the bed. You’ll have no control and have to think about your own safety: not to get kicked in the face!”
Deborah Taylor is a Hong Kong-based infant and child sleep consultant at Infant Sleep Resources, and agrees that “co-sleeping is a marvellous way to enhance bonding, and makes night breastfeeding much easier for the mum and baby. Many babies and toddlers co-sleep and do not have sleep and settling problems.”
As well as cautioning to create a safe sleeping environment, where the baby cannot fall out of bed and no blankets or pillows can fall on her head, Deborah also advises parents to “be mindful to the possible pitfalls in terms of sleep associations if your aim is for your baby to be able to find their own happy, independent and comfortable way of settling going forward. It can become a challenge if your baby or toddler will only settle to sleep if he’s in bed with his parents,” she says.
It seems that even when co-sleeping works for one child, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work as well for another.
Tara Chang has two children, aged four years and 14 months. “Co-sleeping with my older son was the most beautiful thing ever. We’d turn in to face each other, snuggle and we would sleep comfortably. When he was hungry or needed comforting in the night he’d ‘help himself’,” she jokes. “But with my daughter, it’s such a different situation. I do move her into bed with me for the last feed of the night, but she sleeps much better in her cot and with her comforter.”
Every child will have different sleeping preferences, just as parents may need different sleeping arrangements depending on circumstances and changes in their own lives. If a mother goes back to work for her second child, for example, she may take this as a cue to start or stop a co-sleeping routine. There does not have to be one cookie-cutter approach to sleep if it’s not working for you.
Which brings Becca back to the response she and other co-sleepers sometimes encounter when telling friends. “It’s such a weird reaction. I don’t understand why there is so much judgement for different types of parenting. People don’t understand how happy and normal co-sleeping is for us,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be boring if we all parented the same way?”