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Nashville Scene Bedtime Story

To bundle or not to bundle?

By Margaret Renkl

July 8, 1997:  I don't know whether it actually takes a village to rear a child, but I do know that everyone on earth--parent or non-parent--can tell you the best way to do the job. The real hitch to all these instructions is that no two people ever offer the same advice. "You need to bundle that little fellow up, honey," an old lady tells you in the park. "Take his little hat off, dear; babies need at least two hours of fresh air every day," a neighbor's nanny advises. People differ about everything from circumcision to teen curfews, but no parenting topic excites more controversy than the family bed.

The principal argument in support of shared full-family sleeping arrangements is pretty persuasive: Snoozing in a huddle is the way nature designed human beings to sleep. We are mammals without much of a pelt, a fact that doesn't keep a great many of us from living in the world's intemperate zones. Further, we are slow of foot and--despite living among larger, predatory creatures--relatively ill-equipped with claws and fangs; sleeping together may be nature's way of providing us with both warmth and shared security.

A human infant is nothing if not primitive, and instinctively she rejects all parental attempts to persuade her to sleep alone. A human infant may be sleeping soundly on her mother's shoulder, but the second Mom begins to rise--inch by inch--from the rocking chair, tiptoeing--breath held--toward the crib, those primitive genes start sounding off: Watch out, little hairless, fangless baby, they caution--lions and tigers and bears are crouching just beneath the dust ruffle of your crib.

No use explaining to baby that she lives on the wrong continent for lions and tigers to bother her, and that creeping urbanization has forced the bears to move to other neighborhoods. Her genes have heard of neither continental drift nor urban sprawl. Her genes are urging her to join her parents in bed, preferably in the warm nook right between them.

The argument against the family bed, on the other hand, is equally simple and equally compelling: Mommy and Daddy got there first. This may not seem like much of an argument when weighed against the full span of human evolution, but the very existence of baby herself should suggest the appeal of a three's-a-crowd attitude toward sleeping together. In fact, Mommy and Daddy's persistent desire to hog the bed, reserving no warm nook between them for baby, derives no doubt from genetic forces at least as primitive and profound as those that compel baby to pile on in.

There are, of course, sensible 1990s arguments for each of these approaches to family sleeping arrangements. But in fact pragmatic concerns have little to do with the feeling my husband and I share toward the family bed: We're against it.

It's not that we don't love all the snuggling, all that lovely skin-to-impossibly-soft-skin contact of parenthood; it's just that we get plenty of it during our children's abundant waking hours. Plus, our bed is too small for both children to join us comfortably there, and it seems unfair to banish one child to a cold little cot in the next room while the other nestles in among the goosedown pillows. I have friends who actually bought a king-sized bed just so their kids could sleep with them, but even if we had enough space for the bunk of monarchs in our cell-sized bedroom, I don't like king-sized beds. Every time my husband and I have ever slept in one, I have ended up--in a rolling, slumbering attempt to make contact with someone sleeping a half-acre away--crosswise at the foot of the bed, mummified in covers.

Through five-and-a-half years of parenthood we have steadfastly maintained a defensive position regarding the inviolability of our bed. Our first child has a talent for sleeping, and his attacks on this bastion have always been pretty easy to deflect. As a compromise against inviting him into our bed when a bad dream strikes, one of us lies down with him in his own bed; he's usually asleep again within seconds. There was one time in his infancy when he passionately rejected sleeping alone, but three nights of the Ferber Method was all it took to get him back to his usual 12 solid hours of repose.

My children's pediatrician is a big fan of the Ferber Method. When a healthy nine-month-old baby who has been sleeping through the night beautifully for months suddenly begins waking and crying disconsolately, our pediatrician explained, he is experiencing separation anxiety. In this case he does not need food, rocking, or the singing of lullabies. He does not need a hefty dose of Benadryl. He most definitely does not need to join his parents in bed. What he needs is to learn that he is not actually alone. (Never mind that from the perspective of his crib at 3 in the morning, the nursery does in fact look quite empty of other human beings.)

So, according to infant-sleep-expert Richard Ferber, here's the way to convince a baby alone in her room that she is not really alone in her room: The parents take turns going into baby's room every five minutes and patting her on the head. Mommy does not pick baby up; Daddy utters no words of comfort. The second night they wait 10 minutes between head pats; the third night 15, and so on. Most children, according to our pediatrician, are cured after three nights.

Our first son was a sleeping advertisement for the Ferber Method. Those three night were an indescribable misery--we lay in our bed in the next room, gripping each other's hands to keep from giving in to our pitifully wailing child--but by God the method worked. After that, for more than five years, we were Ferber missionaries, proselytizing our skeptical friends whose children persisted in waking at night well past toddlerhood. "It's three nights of pure trauma," we would insist, "but it's worth every second of lost sleep. After those three nights you'll never lose sleep again."

Hell must be full of smug, first-time parents who died too early to repent dumb advice they dispensed too liberally to their friends. What second-time parenthood has taught me is that absolutely no two children are alike, and some babies can resist even Dr. Ferber. We are living with one of those babies right now. The other night--the fifth in this particular attempt to Ferberize him--he cried for three solid hours without pausing even once for breath. He was screaming furiously, rattling the busybox mounted to his crib rails, and systematically slamming all his pacifiers and crib toys to the floor of the room he shares with his brother.

"I can't take this anymore," our older child announced as he climbed into bed with us.

"How many square feet do you think Dr. Ferber's house has?" my husband muttered as he plodded the 10 steps from our bed to the crib next door. He picked up the baby, whose tears subsided instantly, and came back to bed. Our little boy scooted over to make room for them. Between us, both children closed their eyes. We kissed them; we kissed each other; we sank into the pillows and went to sleep.

We did not dream of Dr. Ferber in his great, hollow house.

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