The family bed

It's 3am. I wake from a light sleep as my infant daughter stirs beside me. Her eyes don't open, but she begins to make sucking movements and search for my breast with her open mouth. I move a little closer, and she latches on to nurse contentedly. We both drift effortlessly back into deep sleep. Behind me, my partner settles into a more comfortable position, oblivious to this third feeding of the night. He tells envious fellow dads that the baby hasn't disturbed his beauty sleep since she was three days old.

For most of human history, babies have slept with their mothers. Except in Western, industrialized nations, this is still accepted as the natural thing to do. But most parents in North America today have been raised on the cultural ideal of an angelic baby sleeping through the night, alone, in an immaculately decorated nursery.

It turns out that "ideal" isn't so easy to achieve. We are told that our babies need to learn to be "independent" and to go to sleep on their own. And so, on the advice of books, grandparents, friends, and "sleep-training" programs, babies cry themselves to sleep, night after heart wrenching night. As soon as they can climb out of the crib, they make it clear that they want to be with mommy and daddy. Some exhibit such persistence that the exhausted parents must allow their toddler into their bed -- or resort to such desperate measures as netting over the crib, locking the baby's bedroom door, or responding to night-time fears with threats and spankings. Bedtime becomes a battleground.

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