Monday, January 31, 2022

The Pros & Cons of Co-Sleeping


I’m told by an expert blogger that most readers are scared off by large amounts of text (even if these people read thousands of words per day on Twitter). Meanwhile, I refuse to partake in illiteracy-shaming by providing only a written version of albertnet. Thus, I’m offering this post as a vlog, and as a podcast (click Play and don’t look). The full text follows the video.


Co-sleeping is a very controversial practice: you either swear by it or utterly denounce it. The chances of constructive dialogue between people on opposing sides of this issue are negligible. Here I examine both perspectives to help you make an informed choice.

The benefits of co-sleeping

It’s pretty obvious why co-sleeping seems desirable: there’s no putting-to-bed ritual required, which simplifies the bedtime routine. Even more obviously, there’s the intimacy and bonding that are so crucial—and so sweet! “There is an instinctive desire to be close to your babyface,” says Sunita Gupta, a pediatric RN in Austin, Texas, in this article. “Working people who don’t get this closeness throughout the day often look to bedtime to achieve it.”

This is the easy side of the equation, of course. So why are so many people dead-set against this fairly intuitive practice?

The downsides of co-sleeping

Consider this scenario: you’ve fallen asleep reading in bed, and as you roll over on your side and turn out the lamp, you’re aware of this warm presence right up against your belly, all snuggled up. How wonderful! Perhaps you even sigh contentedly as you drift off to sleep … and all is well until the wee hours, perhaps 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., when you realize something is wrong. You feel this strange pricking sensation against your fingertips. Not quite awake, you move your hand—but then you feel that pricking feeling again. And again. It’s like a very faint electrical shock. And then there’s this warm breath in your face, and you realize your little darling is wide awake. And bored. And biting you.

No, she’s not trying to hurt you … just to wake you up. She seems to think it’s feeding time. And here’s where things get really messy: in the next few moments, your every move is crucial—your good night’s sleep hangs in the balance.

Perhaps your best hope is to the grab the little rascal very quickly so you can relocate her—because no way is she going back to sleep. But you’re delusional if you think this is going to be easy. After all, you’re half-asleep and she’s wide awake, not to mention possessed of lightning-fast reflexes. If that first attempt at a bear-hug fails, you won’t get a second one. And let’s face it, your chances of catching her the first time are minimal to begin with. She’s going to squirt out of your arms in a flash, like you stomped on an uncapped tube of toothpaste, and then she’s leaping from the bed and off and running.

Sure, at this point you could do nothing and just try to go back to sleep … but this is nonsense. You know she’ll be back, poking and prodding you, jumping on your stomach, and running all around the bed. There’s nothing to be done but to run after her—and good luck with that. As you chase her around the house, you’re stumbling and bumping into things, but she’s not—cats have six times better night vision than humans, and at a full sprint can reach 30 mph.

Ideally, you could chase her into another room and then leave, closing the door behind you … but how many cats would fall for that? They’re crafty little beasts—and if you’re devoted to the practice of co-sleeping, you’ve inadvertently left them all kinds of escape routes. The conventional wisdom says that if you simply feed your furry feline, she’ll be satisfied and will come back to bed. This is kind of true, in the sense that she will come back—but she’s not coming back to sleep. She’s bored. She wants to play. Cats never sleep through the night—hence the term “catnap.” Your night is ruined, unless wiggling a piece of yarn for five minutes while your cat gets ready to attack it sounds like fun. Congratulations: you’ve just learned the hard way why so many warn against co-sleeping.

A way forward?

“Okay,” you might be saying, “If co-sleeping is so fraught, do you have a better idea?!” Or maybe you’re saying, “Isn’t this the epitome of a ‘first-world problem’?” Or you’re wondering, “What is this blog and how did I get here?” Well, I’ll concede that decrying one bedtime formula without suggesting another isn’t very helpful. So I’ll do my best.

Note that the longer you’ve been co-sleeping, the harder this is going to be. I’m not saying your cat will have developed a “crutch” or anything, in terms of needing to co-sleep, because it’s established fact that cats barely need humans at all, other than as providers of food and shelter. But they do develop habits, which can make it difficult to end the co-sleeping cycle. When one night your cat finds your bedroom door closed, she’ll just sit there and meow. Don’t bother trying to outlast her—a cat cannot be Ferberized. Cats have evolved to be almost infinitely patient, because patience is useful when ambushing prey. Of course they don’t sound patient, the way they meow almost continuously—but rest assured, they can go on forever. You might as well try to outlast a dripping faucet.

But habits can be changed. Chances are, there’s a way to strand your little kitty in a part of the house where her cries can’t be heard from the bedroom. I know this sounds cruel, but bear in mind this animal would happily eat your eyeballs if you died in your home and could no longer feed her. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. (Okay, perhaps not the best metaphor.)

To be clear, sequestering your cat is probably less Machiavellian than Ferberizing a human, because unlike a human baby whose need for you is existential, and whose developing brain cannot reconcile this sense of abandonment, cats are very straightforward thinkers. For them, this is simply operant conditioning. If meowing at the kitchen door doesn’t produce results, they will eventually shrug it off, like if their cat door stopping swinging one day. It’s no more troublesome to them than it would be for you if the guest WiFi password stopped working at your favorite café, and the barista told you guest WiFi was only available on weekdays. (And good on her, frankly … but I digress.)

But what about your needs as a pet owner (or to be more “woke” about it, as the human guardian of a companion animal)? Honestly, this snuggle time probably means more to you than to your cat. Cats are loners, after all, which is why you can leave them home alone all day without them howling miserably throughout your absence like an abandoned pack animal (e.g., dog).

The solution, I think, is to get lap time with kitty during the day, perhaps after dinner (by which I mean her dinner), when you’re reading a book or watching a video. To many guardians, this seems like a recipe for rejection: here you are, reclined in your La-Z-Boy, blanket across your lap, book in your hand, clearly not going anywhere, but the cat simply doesn’t show up. Happily, this is easy to solve: just turn down your thermostat. You might be wearing the coziest cashmere sweater in the world, but if there’s deliciously warm air gushing out of a heater vent, the cat’s going to choose that every time. Get yourself a warmer throw blanket (I have a down-filled one), nix the central heat, and you should be in business.

This way, when it’s your bedtime, it’s hers too. Figure out a nice place for her to sleep—the crook of an armchair, a gap between throw pillows on a sofa, sometimes even a cardboard box, if that’s where your little darling likes to sleep—and put her there before you retire. It’s possible she will start to appreciate the ritual and won’t even jump up and try to race you to the door as you leave.

Caveat: ssshhhhh!

Whatever approach you take to co-sleeping, I highly recommend you not talk about it with anybody. And why not? Because if your interlocutor agrees with you, that’s bound to be a pretty boring conversation. And if he doesn’t—well, then you’ve got a pointless argument on your hands and all you’ll do is lose face. This is too emotionally charged an issue to discuss rationally … you might as well talk about politics or religion. This other person’s good night’s sleep is not your problem.

(Am I a hypocrite, then? No. This blog post being a one-way broadcast, I am not putting you on the spot here. Sleep with your cat, or don’t … I don’t need to hear about it. If you found this post useful, great. If you disagree with me, just close your browser, and accept my apologies for wasting your time. And if you don’t even have a cat … well, then, why are you here?!)

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