Wednesday, October 28, 2009

AP Principle #5: How to have sex when you're cosleeping

This post is a continuation of Hobo Mama's celebration of Attachment Parenting Month, October 2009. This article focuses on the fifth principle of attachment parenting: Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally (Bedding Close to Baby).

Today's attachment parenting principle (#5, if you're counting) and Baby B has to do with cosleeping and the family bed:

Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally (Bedding Close to Baby)

I didn't want to do a general article on why sleeping with or very near your baby is a good thing, because you probably got that idea from my article on principle #3: "Crying it out vs. the responsiveness of attachment parenting." To respond quickly and sensitively to your baby's needs, day and night, the family bed or bedding down nearby is a great answer.

I thought it would be better to do an article on something specific related to cosleeping, so I was thinking of what questions come up the most when parents raise the issue of cosleeping. Here were the two that sprang to mind:

     "But what if I roll over onto the baby?"

followed at some point, often with a blush but sometimes with a snicker:

     "But how do the parents have sex?"

The first one is an interesting topic, don't get me wrong, but I felt adventurous enough to tackle the second one today. It'll insert a little more titillation into your Hump Day. (All right, the problem with sex articles is automatically everything starts sounding like a sex pun. Let the giggles commence.)

I will offer fair warning right here that if you're squeamish when the topic of sex comes up, now is the time to abandon ship, and I'll see you next when I staidly offer a book review about babysitting.

All right, if you're still with me (I'm not judging either way...), here goes.

Now, I just want to get that first question, about potential harm to your baby by cosleeping, out of the way first, because I don't want it hanging out there spinning through people's minds unanswered. But I will do a quick and dirty job of it (see what I mean about the sex puns?). Short answer: You're highly unlikely to roll over onto your baby. For a longer answer, see an article by the foremost researcher into cosleeping, Dr. James McKenna: "Cosleeping and Overlaying/Suffocation: Is there a chance I'll roll over and crush my child?", as well as my philosophical musings on the subject in general: "Unintended consequences of child 'safety.'" And do be sure always to follow safe cosleeping guidelines.

OK, then, back to the sex talk.

There probably needs to be more talk about sex and parenting in general. I've tried a couple times. I talked in an article titled "I Touch You Once, I Touch You Twice," which, let me tell you, gets lots of Google hits from disappointed fans searching for love-song lyrics, about how mind-trippy it is to go from touching and being touched as a mother all day (and night) to touching and being touched by a lover. Whole different ball game. And I jotted down a quote from Our Babies, Ourselves about the cultural disconnect in the modern United States mindset between sharing a bed with an adult sexual partner and sharing a bed with any other person:

"Adults may sleep together because their relationship is sexual, and intimate, and bed is the place for sexuality and intimacy in America. Moreover, interdependence between a couple is seen as the contemporary ideal. But children are not part of that intimacy or sexuality, nor are they considered part of that interdependence." [p. 124]

So, there's where the prudishness comes into the conversation about cosleeping, and the concern for marital integrity. Marriage in modern American culture has become intimate and relational and about only two people. I can't tell you how different that perspective is from the historical and global view of marriage. I can't outline here all the different ways, anthropologically speaking, humans have understood the concept of marriage, but I just do want to point out that just because we've decided on a current viewpoint doesn't mean that ours is the best or makes the most sense. And one way that our modern viewpoint of marriage doesn't make sense is that it doesn't allow much room for children.

Babies were meant to sleep near their mothers. It's just how it is. Mammals drink milk, and typically and historically and biologically, only mothers provide that milk. Depending on what type of mammal they are, babies need milk day and night when they're at their most vulnerable age. Therefore, they need to be near their mothers day and night. Simple, right?

But when cultural conditioning enters the room, simplicity gets thrown out the window. The marriage bed is sacrosanct, and the parent-to-parent relationship is seen as at once more important and more fragile than the parent-to-baby relationship. I like to think (and I do think) that my marriage is strong and resilient enough to stand up to a few years of playing second fiddle to a baby who needs mothering and fathering more than Sam and I need coddling ourselves. Your mileage may vary if your partnership is not that resilient, and that's not really the point of my argument here. I'm just trying to say that culturally we've been brainwashed into thinking that babies don't belong in their parents' bed, because their parents' bed is sexual, and because their parents' bed is off-limits to anybody but the parents.

Can I say hogwash twice in the same week?

Sometimes I try to fight the culture, as when I write blog posts about how babies biologically and historically belong in a family bed, and sometimes I just ignore it and get on with my own life, bucking the system.

In that second capacity, Sam and I have had to be creative and intentional about how, where, and when we have sex.

It might have sounded like I was being snide when I said that the question of where to have sex was one of the most frequently and soonest asked questions anyone has about cosleeping – but I will raise my hand and wave it wildly to demonstrate that I, too, searched out the same topic on supportive online forums to get some suggestions. And when I first broached the idea of having one big cozy family bed to Sam, it was one of his first queries back at me. So it is indeed a familiar topic, and no one should feel bad about considering the issue when deciding whether cosleeping would be a good fit.

The answer is very mundane, of course. You have sex wherever and whenever works for you.

So, here's some straight talk about our experience, and about the topic in general, in the form of a fictional question-and-answer session.

Why a fictional question-and-answer session? Why not?

Can you have sex in the bed while your baby is sleeping? When Mikko was a newborn, we found that we could have sex on the same great big king-size mattress if he was sleeping to one side and we were quiet on the other side. We stopped this practice when one day he woke up during the act, peered over at us...and cracked up laughing. We, of course, started laughing too, and that killed the mood pretty effectively. We'd never before had anyone find our performance so amusing.

If you don't have sex in bed, where else can you go? Wherever you have. In the same spirit of adventurousness as our newlywed years, we try out different locations in the home. Personally, we tend to favor the living room, which has a comfy couch that's also a pull-out bed, as well as some nice soft chairs and cushions. I won't go into details, but you get the idea. Hopefully you have or can create somewhere cozy for you, or if you like being more inventive, here's your chance to try out all the random places in your house (or outside it — gasp!). Some people have a guest room with an empty bed, which I must admit does sound mighty convenient. Sam and I are always stoked when, for one reason or another, we get to have sex in bed. It used to be the normal thing to do; now it's kind of spicy and unique. Sometimes we take the opportunity to stretch out on our mattress when Mikko's out being cared for by someone else, such as at his preschool. We've also fit in quickies when he's just out on a walk with his aunt (don't tell her), and once when he was watching a DVD (bad parent much? Hey, it worked!). We haven't yet had the temerity to hire a babysitter for the sole purpose of getting it on, though I wouldn't rule that out.

But how do you ever have normal, snuggling-induced nighttime sessions? If it's important to you to fall asleep (or more) with just your partner in bed with you, but you want your kids to have the option to sleep with you later, then there are various ways for that to work. When Mikko was little, we sometimes put him down to sleep in an Amby baby hammock, for naps or at night, and then moved him into bed when he woke up. Some parents have a crib or co-sleeper in the room with them; the baby can start off sleeping there and then move to the bed for the next feeding. Depending on the age of the baby, you can just be on the quieter side and it should work. As kids get older, the parents often offer a separate mattress on the floor or in another room, with a free invitation for the kids to join them in the family bed if they wake up during the night. Another option is for the parents to start off the night in their bed, in their room, with the kids in a different bed in a different room, and then one of the parents (often the nursing mama) moves to the kids' room and bed for the rest of the night. There are many different arrangements possible, and they can always change as the kids grow older and have different needs and routines. As I mentioned, we no longer have sex with Mikko in bed with us, but Sam and I have had the chance for some snuggle time. We put Mikko down a few hours before our bedtime, and by the time we get to bed, Mikko has often drifted to one side of the mattress or the other. Sam and I snuggle down on the other side and enjoy the closeness (and someone to warm my feet again — score!) until Mikko wakes up to nurse.

Be brutally honest here. Is fitting in sex with cosleeping as convenient as having sex before you had kids? No. Sex before kids in general is a lot easier and more convenient. I would like to write more about sex and how it relates to parenting another time. For instance, there's so much involved hormonally and time-wise in the sex lives of lactating women that I think it's generally best to step back and be tolerant of whatever is possible sexually. By setting a 6-week mark as the minimum for when women should be ready to get back into the saddle following a vaginal birth, it inadvertently sets up a false expectation (in my experience) that everything will indeed be back to normal at that time, and sex will proceed as before children. And to that I say: At 6 weeks? Seriously? And I scoff. Loudly. Some women might be ready to bounce back, and some might not. And that's OK, either way.

All right, but to stay on topic for now, how does sex with cosleeping compare with sex when you're not cosleeping? Wouldn't it be more convenient to have kids be in their own bedrooms with doors to close between you? I would guess it would probably be more convenient to have sex at a whim, in a comfy bed, if you were not cosleeping — although, speaking as a person who grew up in a cry-it-out household, I still managed to walk in on my parents at intimate moments. I still say that the difference is greater between pre-kids sex and post-kids sex vs. cosleeping sex and separate-bedrooms sex.

But what's your best guess: Would you have more sex if you had kids but were not cosleeping? Hard to say. I imagine there might be slightly more frequent sex if we weren't cosleeping, but that's not taking in factors like having to get out of bed to feed Mikko and so forth. My life in general would be so different in that case (would Mikko still be nursing?) that I can't really predict what my sex life would be like.

So, is cosleeping worth it, when you're possibly having less sex and definitely having less convenient sex? Absolutely. Sam and I are clear that our priorities at this time in our lives are to our young child. We enjoyed many years of convenient sex before we started having children, and we will have plenty of years ahead of us. For us personally, sex is not the sum of our relationship. It's a very good thing, and we try to carve out time for it, but we both believe that the benefits of cosleeping, to Mikko and to us, outweigh the temporary inconvenience to our sex lives.

Does that mean everyone should come to the same conclusion as you? No. Everyone has different sexual appetites and requirements, and it will vary with age and temperament and length of marriage and backgrounds and whatever, and I can't be the one to say, "Here's the only perspective that's right, and if you don't think the way I do, something's wrong." I can't say definitively that cosleeping is best for everyone else, except to say that, barring any dire consequences to the parents' partnership, it's worth it for the kids.

What if one parent doesn't want to cosleep and the other does, and the non-cosleeping parent is worried about ruining the sex life? That is a toughie. I don't have that experience first-hand, but my theory would be for the cosleeping advocate to be as thoughtful as possible in creating a situation that would work for everyone. Look back at some of the potential arrangements up there and see if one would work, such as starting off the night in an adults-only bed, but then the cosleeping parent moves and finishes the night in the baby's room. It might mean buying bigger beds for everyone, but it could definitely work. Also, gently, sensitively, teach your partner about the benefits of cosleeping and ask for a little leeway to get things all figured out. Even if you're not cosleeping, your sex lives are going to be different, so don't let cosleeping take all the fall for that.

Do you look forward to not cosleeping? I do and I don't. I loved sleeping with just Sam, and I love the chances we've rediscovered to snuggle at the beginning of the night. I enjoy the convenience and comfort of regular-old-bed sex and will likely appreciate that more once it's returned to me. That said, I can see how perfect and natural it is for Mikko to be sleeping with us, and I really do love having him there — so much that I don't want to think about it ending. So I won't. (Fingers in ears, la la la.)

So there you have it.

If you have more specific sex-and-cosleeping questions, feel free to post them in the comments and it will be a real Q & A instead of a fake one. And if you have suggestions or better answers to the above, feel free to post those as well, because that would be helpful to anyone else asking the questions.

And I have a whole 'nother post's worth of sex talk in me, about how our sex lives change from pre-parenting to post-, but we're probably all satisfied for now. (What? I'm not allowed to use double meanings intentionally?)

To sum up: If you want to cosleep and you want to have sex, you will figure out a way to do them both. Don't worry.


Anonymous said...

With my last child (11 years ago), I started out with a toddler safety rail on our queen size mattress which sat on box springs on the floor - no bed frame. We then got a toddler bed which, as it turns out, was the same exact height as our bed! So, I took off the rail closest to our bed and we pinned the toddler bed between the wall and our bed. This left our daughter close to me and I was able to roll my upper body into her bed to nurse in the night conveniently and roll back into our own bed to sleep more deeply.

This made sex very convenient as well! I can recall occasions of having sex in our bed and pausing, holding our breath, when our baby would stir. lol

Now with a new infant (and a new mate), I'm starting out the same way. We have a queen set on the floor with a toddler safety rail. I want eventually to get either a toddler bed or perhaps just a twin set to put next to our bed that will move with the baby into her own room when we're ready.

Arwyn said...

I like this article. Too often, the only response to "But what about sex?" is "Bed's not the only place!" Which is great, as far as it goes, but for about the first two years, the only place we had sex WAS in our bed -- yes, with the Boychick next to us. (We have a king-size foam mattress, and don't have to deal with much in the way of dipping or bouncing.)

And most articles I've read (and posts on forums) make that seem either weird, impractical, abusive, or boring. None of which we found it to be.

Other people aren't comfortable with sex in bed with their kid, and I don't have a problem with that. I just wish others didn't have a problem with my comfort level.

Anyway. You wrote a great article on sex and co-sleeping without dinging my defensiveness. So thank you. :)

Lauren Wayne said...

jorjedatoy: Thank you for a great option! The side-carred smaller bed can work out so nicely if the heights line up like that. I love the image of pausing and holding your breath — been there!!

Arwyn: You know, it's so funny. I'd been working on this article for 2 days and finally was just like: Gotta go somewhere, post, let it go, and I was driving in the car on my way out about a half-hour after when I suddenly got this chill through me of: Oh, my gosh, someone's going to think I'm a perv that we had sex in the same bed (or even the same room!) as our son. I had already worked through this myself by reading stories such as yours, of other parents who don't think it's weird, and so I stopped feeling shame about it. But then I forgot that not everyone has had that epiphany. ;) Anyway, as far as having sex in the same bed as a little one goes, I think much depends on the rousing proclivities of the baby. That story where Mikko woke up and laughed? I think it actually happened more than once before we called it quits! Thanks for the RT, btw.

global mamas said...

Great article! This is a tough one for us as we have (at the moment) two 19 year olds living with us, so even though we have a huge house there is always someone in each and every space...that only leaves the bed and now our little one is 14 months old, things are getting tricky!
The bright side is that we are off on a holiday in a few weeks and then the others are leaving for a while so we might have some fun finally!!

Anonymous said...

I co-sleep, and I am just not able to swing sex in the same room as the baby. If it works for you, great, but for me it's squidgy and mood-ruining. So, we don't do that.

Having said that, my experience is that co-sleeping has less effect on our love life than just having kids overall. The biggest damper is definitely our 4-year-old with a penchant for waking up at exactly the wrong moment & getting out of bed, and she doesn't even co-sleep anymore. Let's face it, kids are not exactly conducive to parental freedom in any context. Which is OK and understandable. But co-sleeping or not doesn't do much to change that.

Olivia said...

Love this post. "What about sex?" was one of my first questions when I found out a friend was bedsharing with her new baby. So far my husband and I have been making use of the spare bedroom and afternoon quickies.

Can't wait for you to post on pre and post-parenting sex. Aside from the somewhat common low sex drive, I've been struggling with how I don't see my body as "for sex" anymore.

Paula S said...

This is a fabulous (and entertaining) article. It lets lots of new parents know that they're not alone in dealing with sexual issues after a newborn. Those babies certainly change our lives on so many levels.

Rosemary Cottage said...

My ex husband blamed our lack of a sex life on cosleeping. And then, when he sent the baby to his Mum's house overnight a few times (waaaaay before I was ready to be separated from him, and while he was still exclusively breastfed, which meant lots of expressing) we still didn't have sex. (Un)surprisingly enough, it wasn't to do with the cosleeping at all.

Personally, I don't have a problem with sex in the same bed as a cosleeping baby/toddler; I don't see what is wrong about it. But if you want to make some noise or cause a rumpus, you risk baby-interruptus which really is a passion killer.

I totally agree that pre and post parenting sex differ much more than cosleeping/non cosleeping sex.

Rambling Rachel said...

When someone says something about co-sleeping making sex impossible, it's easy to shut someone up by asking, "Who wants to have sex in a bed? How boring!"

Lisa C said...

Honestly, I'm glad sex isn't so convenient anymore. It was getting boring. Now it's more exciting, even though it isn't very often (though the not-very-often part has more to do with me feeling touched-out and being distracted easily than it does with co-sleeping). I think we might do it more if we didn't co-sleep, but not much more. And even when the baby is sleeping in another room, I have the monitor on full blast right next to us, in case he wakes up. I'm paranoid he'll wake up and cry when we're in the middle of it. I've been much more relaxed when we are in the same room as our sleeping baby.

Lauren Wayne said...

Lisa: The beginning of your comment made me snort out loud! It's just so nice and honest and true. I also think we wouldn't have so much more sex if we didn't cosleep, b/c there are still all the baby issues.

Rambling Rachel: Love your comeback! Going to steal it.

Ruth: Your ex makes me so sad for you, and the baby, too. Like you said, cosleeping usually has little to do with any changes/problems in sex, but it's an easy thing to blame.

Global Mamas: That does sound tricky! How was your holiday? (You don't have to answer that! :)

Everyone: I really do need/want to write that article on post-baby sex. It's been swirling in my brain.

Lauren Wayne said...

Just one more random thing to say: I hate that Blogger weirded up the URL. I didn't notice until it had already been tweeted, so I didn't want to fix it and break the links.

Is it bothering anyone else? Everybody say no, so I can sleep easy...

teresa said...

I think that's pretty much our conclusion too... It ain't easy!
I really appreciate how well you write about this. I'll pass it along to my husband. We still haven't found our rhythm (nearly 4 years later).
I do love my little bundle in the bed with me though.
She does want her own bed in some ways and we've set up her special place. We're hoping she'll get into it just to fall asleep in there maybe and then we'll bring her back with us when we go to sleep (or when we're finished being alone!)

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