Reflections on Sleeping Alone

Reflections on Sleeping Alone. Why do we expect babies to sleep alone, when we wouldn't want to do it ourselves?Image courtesy of fmpgoh via Flickr

I consider myself extraordinarily blessed: I have never, in my life, had to sleep alone.

I mean, there were probably a few months in my infancy when I slept alone in a crib, between the first few months I spent in a bassinet next to my parents’ bed, and the arrival of my sister when I was 17 months old. But from that point onward, I always shared a bed with someone.

When my sister and I were very little we slept in twin beds, side-by-side (mine folded down and could be stored under hers during the day). We had our own sheets and comforters. But when we reached adolescence, our parents decided to move out of their queen-sized water bed on account of my dad’s backaches. They offered the bed to us. We thought it was a no-brainer: of course we wanted the wavy, temperature-controlled bed.

We slept side-by-side in that bed, under a shared blanket, through our teen years and into our adulthood, until the day I got married and moved in with my husband at the age of twenty.

We got a few weird looks here and there as teenagers when we brought new friends into our bedroom, and it made us self-conscious. But we wouldn’t have dreamed of splitting up – who would we chatter with about our days every night as we drifted off to sleep? – and we certainly weren’t going to give up the comfort of the water bed. That thing was awesome.

* * *

I have three sisters and one brother. That means everyone in my family had a sleeping partner growing up (my mom had dad; I had my closest sister; my younger two sisters had each other) . . . except my brother.

He used to weep at the injustice. “Why does everyone get to sleep with someone except me?” he wailed.

So sometimes my dad would sleep in his room with him. Sometimes my mom swapped places with my brother for the night. It was always a treat when he got to have a partner.

For him, having a room to himself was a curse.

* * *

The other day I was talking with a friend about singleness. She remarked that the one objection she hears to being single over and over again—before “I want someone to grow old with,” or “I want someone to share my life with”— is “I don’t want to have to go to bed alone.”

How many songs don’t bemoan the coldness, emptiness, and loneliness of being in bed all by oneself?

It gives me the sense that humans aren’t wired to sleep alone.

(All other primates co-sleep, after all).

* * *

Many people who don’t have spouses – and some who do – welcome animals into their beds for nighttime companionship. We don’t raise eyebrows at that behavior.

So why is it so wrong for two humans who aren’t in a sexual relationship – say, two sisters, a toddler and his dad, or two good friends – to share a bed?

Why is it that only married couples are allowed to have someone next to them when they go to sleep?

Why is having a sexual partner the single prerequisite for getting to have company while we sleep?

* * *

This brings me to babies.

Why is it that the first thing we demand of a child is that she sleep alone?

Before she can use the toilet or feed herself, before she can use words to express herself, and often before she can even sit up on her own, she must do what most adults hope they never have to do: go to bed alone.

Why do we expect something from our infants that we wouldn’t even expect from our spouses – to be content to sleep alone?

* * *

A while back I overheard some mothers discuss the cry-it-out method for getting babies to sleep by themselves.

“He doesn’t need anything at night,” one woman observed, to explain why a parent shouldn’t have to go to a crying baby.

And it’s true — if, by saying he doesn’t need something, you mean he won’t die if he doesn’t get it.

I also don’t need hugs whenever I’m sad or lonely. My husband doesn’t need sex, either. Lots of people survive without hugs or sex.

But those things are awfully nice.

* * *

Criticizing a baby for expressing a desire to be with his parents at night is like criticizing a couple for wanting to share a bed or a group of friends wanting to hang out “just for companionship.”

They’re not being silly. They’re being human.

Photo courtesy of fmpgoh.
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  1. So true, sleeping alone totally sucks! I was the only girl in my family until I was 19, but I shared rooms with all my brothers at various points. My parents put an end to the practice against my will when I was 12 because they thought I should have my own room. In college, one of my roommates and I had our beds side-by-side and we went to sleep at the same time every night talking. As a teenager and in college I always shared beds with my friends (girls) when we’d spend the night at each others’ houses all the time. Good point about babies – why should we expect them to do something no one wants or likes to do?

  2. “Lots of people survive without hugs or sex.

    But they’re awfully nice.”

    Love this post, and how you framed your thoughts — it’s compelling without wandering into preachy :)
    Lenae recently posted..summertime | perfectionMy Profile

  3. My girls share a bed (3&5). My son (7) often asks to “sleep over” in their room. Go for it! I love the idea. Our bed is also open to them if ever they need it. BTW the most recent version of P&P has the sisters sharing a bed as teens. I wish I had come to this conclusion years ago though:(

  4. Wonderful post as usual! So beautifully put. I’ll have to add this argument to my tool belt. :) Thank you for being so articulate in defending babies and their needs. It may not be a physical need to sustain life, but I believe it is an emotional need. Just like vitamins, the more vitamins (emotional needs) you are deficient in, the worse your overall health is.
    Michele recently posted..Baby Projects Reviewed – Pre-fold & Rita’s Rump Pocket DiapersMy Profile

  5. Very true – I couldn’t imagine making my newborn son be alone for 8 – 10 hrs a day even if he was “just sleeping”. it seemed almost cruel to force someone who was used to being lulled to sleep by his mothers heart beat to suddenly be completely alone – co sleeping (whether that meant bed share or just room sharing) just made so much more sense!
    Molly W. recently posted..Inspired Additions: Simple Living Books for KidsMy Profile

  6. That’s funny…I dislike having to share the bed. I sleep clinging to the edge, almost falling off, so no one else (the DDH or the dogs) is touching me, and I sleep much better if the DDH stays up late and I’m alone in bed.

    Whenever I’ve had to share a bed with someone before I was married (in hotels or whatever), I would apparently kick them violently in my sleep, shove them away, and build up a wall of blankets between us. I just do *not* like physical contact when I’m unconscious, though I’ve always shared my bed with dogs, at least (except for in college and a couple years in high school when I had the upper bunk). Ick.

    So that’s definitely influencing me away from co-sleeping with T-Rex when he comes along. I want him in the room, but not in the bed. To each her own, I guess.

    • Hi Katie: that’s totally understandable. I imagine there are monkeys who also don’t like to be touched when they sleep. :)

      For me, sharing sleep is not so much about the touching. In fact, my sister and I NEVER touched, in all those years we shared a bed. All my friends will tell you I am not a touchy-feely person.

      Rather, sharing sleep has more to do with the comfort of knowing you’re not alone. Which is something you’ll be able to offer your T-Rex if you have him in your room, even if he’s not in your bed.

      • True! I am just a Super Introvert and reeeeeaaaaaallly like being alone. Even the dogs are too much company sometimes. ^_^

        But even an introverted T-Rex will probably like to have someone nearby at first considering his entire life he’s been living inside someone else’s body. I just know my own sleeping habits would send him flying violently out of the bed if he were actually *in* the bed with me. Though I guess one never knows how one will truly feel about the baby until he’s here.

  7. I always slept alone until I was married and found it hard to adjust when my husband wanted to snuggle to sleep. 17 years later I like to snuggle with him, and I miss my kids being in our bed. I totally agree with you that it’s weird that we ask our babies/small children to sleep alone. My kids each do now, as they are a teen-aged boy and girl, but for their first years we blissfully all slept near or with each other. Well okay, it wasn’t always blissful at the time, but thinking of it now it is something I miss!
    LisaZ recently posted..A Reminder To Myself: About Iced Tea in the SummerMy Profile

  8. This is such a great post, Kathleen. Bed-sharing just makes so much sense, especially when you consider how extraordinary (dare I say excessive) it is for us to have a separate bed and even separate bedroom for almost every single person in the family! (Says the lady with three people living in a four-bedroom house. Shaking head.)

    I would be totally open to having as many kids in a room and even in a bed as they wanted – it sounds cozy! However, my husband is like Katie above and hates sleeping with other people. Obviously he sleeps with me, and he’s okay with cosleeping in the beginning, but he’s a light sleeper and has such a hard time falling back to sleep if he’s woken up. He also has memories of voluntarily sleeping on the floor on vacations just so he wouldn’t have to share a bed with his brothers! So when I’ve brought up the idea of our kids eventually bedsharing, he’s looked at me like I was a crazy woman! So while we very well may have our kids sharing rooms, I imagine we’ll never be having them sharing beds :)
    That Married Couple recently posted..7 Quick Takes (85)My Profile

  9. That’s so funny, all the way through this post, I kept thinking, “oh man, I LOVE sleeping alone” – I’m single, and honestly, I sometimes worry that it will be really tough to share a bed someday, if I decide to get married. I did used to enjoy sharing the bed with one small dog, but even she got on my nerves often enough, getting too close and making feel overheated. I can’t sleep at all if I’m too warm! And stretching out and hogging the whole double bed is one of my favourite things about going to sleep every night. That being said, I definitely don’t see two people sharing a bed, siblings or otherwise, as weird. Truly, to each her own!

  10. I had to share a bed with my sister when I was young, and I hated it! She kicked constantly. Now that I am married I miss sleeping alone because my husband snores :( when he works late though I am glad the dog is there (although sometimes she kicks me too!).

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