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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