Co-Sleeping, One Parent’s Story

by Dr Audrey Clarke MB BS (UCH London) FRNZCGP FRACGP

I just read about this website in the British Medical Journal while lying in bed with a couple of my kids sleeping peacefully beside me. I just thought I would share a few experiences with you

I am a full time GP, mother of 8 children, and for long periods have been a single parent due to my former partner suffering long periods of very severe depression and separation.

My children are now ages 13 to 18 months. Many people ask me, how can you possibly be a full time GP and have all those kids? I tell them, that I manage because I gave up trying to force them into their own beds long ago, so do have the advantage that I get a good night’s sleep and start the day refreshed.

After having baby number 1 the traditional way, trying to force the poor thing into a cot and losing heaps of sleep, I was simply too exhausted for baby number 2.
I found trying to cope with work as a junior doctor in the UK and caring for another toddler “too much” so I put number 2 in the bed with me straightaway.

I had the misapprehension at the time that baby no 2 was an angel, just a “perfect baby” and very different from number one. Life was wonderful, sleep easy, and I counted my blessings.

When no 3 came along I thought I had been equally blessed, but by number 4 (all at just less than 2 yearly intervals, being fully breast fed) I began to really believe there was more to this than temperament. In other areas of life they were demanding and intelligent, their good sleep patterns were more than just a fluke.

The real test came when I had twins, was 100% on my own and working full time in a foreign country without any family support. My other children at that time were 8, 6, 4 and 2. The twins were born at 29 weeks and were appalling breast feeders initially.
But we got there, I coped and I only coped because they slept well in my bed. I threw away in disgust all the books about twins that said “I only managed because my husband was so wonderful” and felt like writing the book “I only managed because they slept with me”. As long as they were either in the crook of my arm lying side by side each other or on top of me they woke only to nuzzle around for the breast. They did not cry during the night and I did nothing more than feed them and pat them while barely awake and still lying down myself.

I was certainly not “privileged” at that point. I worked full time by day, expressed milk between patients, struggled for money, struggled for housing, struggled to try and remain half way “professional” – but I did it knowing my “night angels” would see me through, and they did.

Number 7 and 8 were so easy they are hardly worth a mention. Having travelled the world by then with family in tow the last thing I owned or aspired to was a separate nursery, basinette or cot.

Nowadays I have a big house in Australia and just have 2 queen sized mattresses (with waterproof covers) juxtaposed on the floor in “my” room (no bed frame).
That way no-one can fall out and hurt themselves. My 13 y old is definitely in his own bed, and the number in my bed fluctuates between myself and the 18 month old alone and about 8, depending on the time of day or night. We have the happiest of times together. Sometimes it is a special one on one chat for a few minutes at 3 in the morning if someone is sick, more commonly it is a community cuddle and talk at 8pm or 6am.

I got my kids double beds as they started to outgrow my bed, and my 11 year old now looks for his best friend, the 9 year old to have a read in bed and a chat before they fall asleep together in either one or the other’s bed. That bed is another popular sleeping place for the 18 month old, who adores her older sisters.

Bed sharing is such a special human experience, it is beyond me how western society can willingly deprive mothers, children and families of it. Once I’d found out how to do it properly, I would have been happy to have had 10 kids this way! I have a nanny who is 46 and of Indian origin and she fits in perfectly with our famly philosophy. When her mum comes to stay they automatically share the same bed despite the availability of other beds – they just prefer it that way.

I was lucky enough before having children to have lived in developing countries and seen how women manage “the impossible” there. Physical closeness, bed sharing and love of children are all the basis of life. Many people there have virtually nothing in the way of material possessions, but they understand how to rear babies.

To me, heaven is a little baby, contentedly sleeping and breast feeding in the crook of his or her mother’s arm while the mother sleeps also utterly contended in the knowledge her baby is close, safe and the most perfectly adorable baby in the world.

Dr. Audrey and children
Dr. Audrey Clarke and family

As a doctor, I have carefully examined all the evidence for and against bed sharing over the years reading all books and publications in the medical press on the subject. Western society as a whole would dearly like to show that bed sharing is bad. The only people that do it are the weird, “foreigners” or the underprivileged. Despite this, only drugs, alcohol use and smoking are true risk factors for a correlation between infant mortality and bed sharing. In these cases “sofas” are often classified for study purposes as beds, where the angles of recline are clearly suboptimal for bed sharing with an infant.

I wish a respectable well-established body would conduct a randomized trial in the western world of the safety of “planned bed-sharing” (support from community medical and nursing staff, adequate bedding, full-time, breast fed) vs. the western traditional “non-bed sharing” model and look at the risk of mortality and the quality of life in the two scenarios. I have little doubt which group would come out tops, but also little doubt there would be huge resitance to the reception of any such results.

I wish the joys of bedsharing could become the birthright of every mother, father, baby and child. I wish you all the best in your quest to achieve this.

Dr Audrey Clarke MB BS (UCH London) FRNZCGP FRACGP
Australind Medical Centre, Western Australia.