Tuesday, May 01, 2007


I have long thought about sleep, human sleeping habits, and the anecdotal stories of sleep I know. Since I'm rather sleep-deprived myself this morning, I thought it would be a good day for my promised post on sleep. :)

I started thinking about sleep when I was in college. I went from being an early-riser, who can go to sleep early & rise early and loves the site of the morning mists, to a lover of the midnight hours, writing poetry in the dark, sipping coffee and talking philosophy late into the night.

In graduate school I wrote a paper about co-sleeping, and I became more interested in human sleeping habits and arrangements than ever. Co-sleeping, also known as "the family bed" by many, involves family members, other than spouses, sharing beds. For us, this involved sharing a bed with Mane until she was 3. (Then she moved to a mattress on our floor. Then she moved to her loft bed when she was 4. Then she started sleeping on the couch at 4.5, where she still sleeps now....more on that later.) Co-sleeping fosters attachment, easier nighttime nursing, and none of that cry-yourself-to-sleep business. It looks beautiful in theory.

Then Mane was born. And I found that nighttime nursing involves MUCHO sleep loss...or, at least, very broken sleep. Then I started hearing theories about broken sleep...how people never used to sleep 8 hours straight in early societies. It's sort of a modern luxury to get uninterrupted sleep. Yet, somehow, all our experts are telling us that uninterrupted sleep is essential to good health. Could it be that if we slept in other ways our bodies would adapt? If we stopped being resentful about interrupted sleep, might we find that broken sleep works just as well? Try as I might to make that theory work, I still felt pretty sleep-deprived for much of Mane's early life.

Yet I am sure that getting out of bed was not the answer. Co-sleeping allowed me to stay in bed, only semi-conscious, while attending to Mane's nighttime needs. I was more rested than if I'd had to fully awaken and get out of bed to attend to her. And Mane has thrived from the attachment bond created by knowing that we will always be there to take care of her. We didn't leave her in a dark lonely room to cry alone, and we never will. And it hasn't turned her into a shy, dependent, clingy child, either. Quite the opposite. She is outgoing and thrives in new situations. She has a great deal of confidence.

So, what I find interesting is that people all over the world sleep with their children, yet it is such taboo in our culture. People believe that you have to get your children out of your bed or they'll sleep there forever. Yet...um...we get married and then begin sleeping with our spouse in our adults years and don't think of this as a sign of dependence or poor sleep habits. I think it's good and healthy to help children adapt to all kinds of sleep situations. As Mane got older we moved her to her mattress on the floor because there wasn't enough room in our bed. And we were elated to have privacy in our own room when she moved into her loft. We're still pretty happy with her sleeping on the couch rather than with us. Because she learned to sleep with us, though, we can take her camping and on trips all over the place, and we don't worry that she won't sleep. She can sleep anywhere as long as we're around. Now she'll even sleep on other people's couches. :) Children who are trained to sleep in a dark quiet room in their own bed with no people around from a very early age have trouble traveling. It's just true.

Research tells us that being around other people helps babies regulate their breathing & sleep pattern at night, perhaps reducing the risk of SIDS.

And my theology studies tell me that God is a God of relationship and community. We are created in the image of God and have a deep need for connection with God and with other humans. Those monkey studies tell us that mammals need real connection in order to thrive. You can't deprive a monkey of an attachment figure and expect it to live.

When we sleep we are at our most vulnerable. And so when we sleep with others it demonstrates our trust, and it nurtures the bond of deep connection between people.

So, I think Mane sleeps on the couch because it's in the middle of our small house, and she feels a certain connection with everybody that way. Mango brings her to sleep with me when he gets up early in the morning so that he doesn't wake her up while he's getting ready for work. And this works for us. She sleeps on her own...but connected...for much of the night...and then she gets some snuggle time with me in the morning until I sneak out of bed about an hour before she gets up.

Only recently have I begun to realize Vespera's need for physical connection with people. She came from a house where she slept with her sisters. She has her own bed here, of course. She tried having Mane sleep with her once, only to end up on the floor because Mane wanted to take up the whole bed. Vespera sat and talked with me in the beanbag last night with her head on my chest, playing with my fingers, just like Mane would if she were sitting there. And she always responds positively to having her hair stroked or her back rubbed. I commented to Mango that other night that most "American" children, especially at the age of 16, would be resistant to physical affection. It reminds me that I want to raise Mane to be demonstrative with her affection. Be able to hold your child as a teenager gives you one more tool to foster the connection when they are most likely to be unable to bridge the gap between you in any other way. When they are feeling so out of sorts that they don't know what to say or how to be close to you, a head-rub, back-rub, foot-rub maintains the connection. The human touch can still be there when words fail.

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