The Encircling Wolves: Co-Sleeping in an Age of Musical Cribs

I am often amazed at the lengths some people will go to in order to prove a point. Take, for example, Dr. William Sears. Dr. Sears is the author of dozens of books on child care and medicine, and director of the popular parenting-advice website, When his fourth child – a daughter, Hayden – was born in 1978, he and his wife became – literally overnight – converts to the co-sleeping method. He thought it was so ineffably brilliant, in fact, that he spent night after night studying the unfolding microcosm of mother-infant bonding that occurred after the lights went out. It is a testament to his innate, boundless curiosity as both a parent and a scientist.

I can picture Dr. Sears gazing out on his sleeping wife and new child, statuesque in his corner chair, trying not to make a peep. He probably got really good at taking notes without looking, jotting down observations in the near total-darkness of his bedroom-turned-laboratory. The previously staunch advocate against all things co-sleeping, busily sipping cups of strong black French press café, straining his eyes to see the tiniest of movements between his wife and his newborn daughter. It’s something strange, beautiful, and yes, perhaps, a bit creepy. (I put myself into his wife’s robe and slippers, as it were: awaking to find a pair of loving, yet sternly wide eyes peering out from the dark chair in the corner. It must have been disconcerting, worrisome at times. “Honey, can you please just come to bed?” “Yes, dear. In a while. Just go back to sleep. I need to see what happens with the child when you re-enter your REM cycle.”

Dr. Sears’ findings were at once humdrum and revolutionary.

On the one hand, what he was witnessing unfolding between his wife and their newborn girl was nothing new: humans (like most other animals) have always slept in close proximity to their young. It’s, well, just sort of obvious – something corroborated by the vast majority of the world’s human population: outside the industrial West, people typically share their beds with their children. Sometimes into their teens. I’m personally not invested in this arrangement for the long haul like this, but hey, more power to the man and woman who don’t bat an eyelash when Junior brings his first girlfriend to bed in the family bedroom.

On the other hand, our modern post-industrial society, in its infinite wisdom, has deemed it unsafe, improper, and possibly even deadly to sleep nestled close to children. The collective (and insane) voice crying out against sharing beds with children, demanding that they be given their own cribs in their own private rooms, sees no reason why every individual cannot be just that: an individual, with all their own individual things. This, naturally, should extend to babies as young as a week old. Why shouldn’t little Humperdink get a jump on his peers? Let the kid cry it out! Let him pull himself up by his own bootstraps! You say he’s a year old and still sleeping with mom and dad?? I say he’s bound for community-college dropout status. The lout. Dr. Sears’s observations in the late 70’s came to the medical community at a time of peculiarly intense pushback against all the wisdom of the ages. What he was suggesting – babies sleeping with their mommies and daddies is a good and normal thing! – was tantamount to heresy.

And, in many arenas, it still is. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), along with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, warns against the evils of co-sleeping, bed-sharing, sleep-sharing, and any other moniker attached to the overall notion of sleeping next to one’s helpless infant. “Suffocation!” they cry, and “SIDS!” they prophesy. “Strangulation, crushing, asphyxiation, dismemberment and death!” they preach. (And, in a few cases they are correct in their sermons: you shouldn’t hop into bed with your baby after a bender at the bar with old college buddies; sleep on the couch that night. And you shouldn’t smoke in bed with your baby. Really? Well, shoot. Can I smoke in the living room with my baby, or while giving him a bath? Oh, and don’t share a bed with your baby if you are “excessively obese.” Can you realistically share a bed with anyone if you are “excessively obese”?) In each case, common sense would quickly spell out the best (read: only possible) path. But, as a friend of mine says “you know, the thing about common sense is: it’s not all that common.”

Dr. James McKenna, professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, and author of scads of articles, interviews, and books on parenting, childcare, and the nature of co-sleeping, has a lot of good stuff to say on the topic. He has spent his career studying these topics on a global level from an anthropological perspective. And he sees absolutely no reason why we should accept the rhetoric coming out of wishy-washy institutions like the AAP.

James McKenna quotes:

“I worry about the message being given unfairly (if not immorally) to mothers: that is, no matter who you are, or what you do, your sleeping body is no more than an inert potential lethal weapon against which neither you nor your infant has any control. If this were true, none of us humans would be here today to have this discussion because the only reason why we survived is because our ancestral mothers slept alongside us and breastfed us through the night!”

Elsewhere, McKenna states: “The solitary infant sleep environment represents a neurobiological crisis for the human newborn as this micro-environment is ecologically invalid for meeting the fundamental needs of human infants.”

That is, don’t put your infant in a cave (or crib) and walk away. We in our modernity are still beholden to the laws of nature. When we put infants in cribs to “soothe themselves” and to “learn to sleep on their own” we are really just inviting the spectre of ancient demons to come and inhabit the lair. Ok, that’s a stretch.

But it’s not a stretch to say that leaving an infant alone to sleep can be dangerous, perhaps even stupid. McKenna again: “Indeed, sleeping alone in a room by itself and not breastfeeding are now recognized as independent risk factors for SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome], a fact that explains why most of the world has never heard of SIDS.” It is prima facie absurd to suggest that allowing newborn humans to “go to sleep on their own” is something we can actually achieve. We may not have packs of dire wolves closing in on our nesting angels, but we do have babies who still have biological, emotional, psychological, developmental needs: needs that are not being met when we dump them in some crib for the night to work it out on their own. We cannot replace ourselves – our innate presence – with something as banal and crude as a plastic, vibrating, battery-operated rocker or crib.

When we attempt such a thing, we are going against the grain of thousands of years of tried and true human nature: the contact, the touch, tenderness, intimacy, familiarity that comes with sharing a sleeping arrangement with our own young – we are in danger of losing this. And with this loss comes a loss of trust and a greater gulf between us and the tiny beings we (rather often purposely) brought into this mess. And to lose this synaptic connection, to snuff out the flame of parent-infant bond at such a tender age, would not just be a shame: it would be a tragedy.

Sources: – “Co-Sleeping: Yes, No, Sometimes?”,

Huffington Post: “My Conversation with Co-Sleeping Expert James McKenna,

University of Notre Dame. Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory. Safe Co-Sleeping Guidelines,


2 thoughts on “The Encircling Wolves: Co-Sleeping in an Age of Musical Cribs

  1. We have co-slept with our daughter for nearly three years now. While it can sometimes be time consuming putting her to sleep, I had an epiphany of gratitude a few weeks ago.

    We take turns putting her to bed and when it is my turn I often come out of the bedroom and tell my wife all of the funny, adorable, and inventive things that my daughter said before falling asleep. (Our normal routine is to read a few books, tell a long story—usually about animals walking through the forest—then sing a number of songs, then quiet.) It occurred to me that this bedtime routine is one of my favorite moments with our daughter. Some of my favorite memories have come from this time. The other night she rolled over toward me, buried her head into my chest and said, “Dad, you love to take care of me don’t you?”

    You just don’t get moments like that back. You don’t get any of it back.

    Those moments of presence, touch, and sharing with one another are just that—moments. You can’t make up for them, you can’t buy with with money, you can’t teach them in lessons. You live them with awareness and gratitude.

    What do I have better to do than to lie in bed telling stories, singing songs, and drifting off to sleep with my child? Nothing. Nothing at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As always, Pilgrim, your thoughts ring bell-like, true and clear, in this chaotic head. Love the idea of being “momently” created and recreated; divesting ourselves of the garments of routine, complacency, blindness is a second by second endeavor. Carlos Castaneda calls it “stopping the world.” Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “mindfulness.” Most call it “meditation.” Whatever the moniker, the essence remains: being present in the present moment.

      Liked by 1 person

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