To Co-Sleep or Not to Co-Sleep: Part 2 Co-Sleeping Habits


As birth or adoptive parents, our co-sleeping habits are up to us. As foster parents it is a different story. Each state has different rules and guidelines that govern co-sleeping habits. No matter the state the basic part of the official rule is “NO co-sleeping”.

End of story. Right?

In simple terms NO means NO. So it should be the end of the story but it isn’t.

Co-sleeping isn’t just about some “bad” habit formed during infancy. It is true that infancy is when co-sleeping habits form but it is not a habit that simply stops because a child is no longer a baby. And it doesn’t just stop because it is not your kid and you don’t have the right to co-sleep.

Tennessee is no different than most states with officials telling parents of any kind to stop co-sleeping. The official take on the best way to raise a baby to childhood is to follow the ABCs of Safe Sleeping. While this is the official take on the matter it doesn’t mean that all birth families follow these guidelines.

Truthfully there are enough co-sleeping options available so families can co-sleep and still follow those ABCs. All one needs to do is a web search for “bedside co sleeper”.

When it came time for our first placement, Rent-a-Dad and I had already gone through the classes and had been told by the state, pediatricians, and the local health center that co-sleeping was a “no-no”. From our personal standpoint, we fight with our cats for space in our bed each night. Why would we ant to worry about adding a baby or a toddler to that mess?

Usher in our first placement: a baby and a toddler. They each had their own bed/crib in their own bedroom. We did use a bassinet and a pram for the baby when he wasn’t in his own crib.

Good. Right?

Not exactly.

The toddler had already developed co-sleeping habits with his father but we weren’t to find this out for months. Due to the co-sleeping habits the toddler refused to go to sleep without an hour worth of crying and screaming each night. To him no dad equaled no sleep.

At this time Rent-a-Dad had evening commitments for the first two months of their stay with us. This meant I handled setting up the bedtime routine. The infant was relatively easy as he would be napping around his brother’s bedtime. The bedtime routine for the toddler was physically and emotionally draining for me.

I would spend between thirty minutes and an hour each night trying to calmly get the toddler to sleep.

This difficult and draining nightly event was discussed with all the caseworkers. The caseworkers were worried over the amount of time it took to get the toddler calm enough to drift off to sleep. We discussed techniques such as using noise machines to bed-time stories to even co-sleeping.

Yes the caseworkers and I talked about trying co-sleeping with the toddler. They asked if we had tried it and I told them we hadn’t.

The reason? Not only had the state already expressly said “no co-sleeping” in our training and paperwork, it honestly felt weird to Rent-a-Dad and I to think about a little human not biologically ours crawling into our bed.

That however did not mean we didn’t try a variation of co-sleeping. I would put the TV on in his room, turn off the lights, and sit with him on the twin bed. My hope was he would fall asleep and I could move him to his crib. I even tried quiet time with reading a book or putting the noise machine on. Each attempt at setting a bedtime routine would take five nights as five days is about the time it takes for routines to get set in a child’s mind. Any quiet time activity had the opposite affect on him. He would jump on the bed, laugh, and refuse to calm down. Co-sleeping habits of any kind were not going to work.

So the answer was no. No we did not try co-sleeping, at least not by DCS measures.

At the end of the first month what worked more consistently was turning on the noise machine/nightlight, putting the toddler in his crib, and then I would lie on the floor and hold his hand through the slat of the crib until he fell asleep. This was by no means bed-sharing but it was a form of co-sleeping habits.

Due to the difficulties we had with any bedtime routine for the toddler the birth parents were asked frequently about their bed time routines. Each time they denied any form of co-sleeping as to them it meant bed-sharing.

After getting to know the birth family better we found out that the birth father would get home from work and try to decompress. He did so while watching evening shows and the toddler would fall asleep on the couch curled up next to him. When the toddler was a baby he would fall asleep in his dad’s arms.

Even though the birth father would move him to his crib once he was asleep this was the toddler’s bedtime routine. While technically this was not bed-sharing it most certainly was developing co-sleeping habits.

Once we learned what the bed time routine really was we were able to adapt what we were doing. The toddler still would not curl up with us, nor did we expect him to, we used the TV in his room on a timer to help with a fuss free bedtime routine.

As for the baby…

One very important thing to remember is that co-sleeping does not mean bed-sharing. Because the government uses the two terms synonymously so many people are against co-sleeping. Broken down into the most basic explanation co-sleeping means sleeping in close proximity to an infant.

Our first foster baby had a need to know his caregivers were near by at all times. We found this out quickly as not every time he cried was it for food or a diaper change. It sometimes just meant he wanted to be rocked or soothed. After the first week of letting him sleep in the pram we had, because the crib did not work consistently, we invested in a bassinet. The bassinet could be locked still or in its unlocked position it could be rocked. It also had music and light vibration settings.

That bassinet ensured that we received some form of sleep and sanity each night. At bedtime the bassinet sat in our room next to our bed. During the day I kept the bassinet near me in our family room. After the first few months the baby slept in the bassinet at night and napped in his rocker during the day. After most bottles the baby would fall asleep in our arms.

Both Rent-a-Dad and I are big believers in skin to skin bonding for newborns and infants under 3 months. Skin to skin bonding does not mean anyone needs to be naked. I would generally wear a tank top and Rent-a-Dad an undershirt and we would hold our clothed foster baby with his face in the crook of our neck while we burped him and rubbed his back.

Foster parents are constantly reminded that children in the foster care system have hard times bonding and being able to create bonds is an important life skill. When babies are removed from their mothers so close to birth there needs to be some kind of bond formed between the care giver and the baby. This bond is an important part of early learning. Skin to skin bonding can help make this connection.

Have questions on how to bond with any foster child? This article, 10 ways to bond with your adopted or foster child, has a lot of good ideas including skin to skin contact even with older children.

For concerned foster parents, here are some important questions to discuss with your caseworker:

  • Does co-sleeping strictly refer to bed-sharing?
  • As long as the plan is for the infant to move to a crib in his/her own room after a few months, can a bassinet be used in the foster parent’s bedroom?
  • When a toddler/child is having trouble getting to sleep, can you utilize co-sleeping habits like rocking them to sleep, rubbing their back, or sitting in a chair beside their bed until they fall asleep?
  • What should I do if the child/toddler is consistently crawling into my bed after I go to sleep?

No one ever really thinks about these questions when it is your own biological or adopted child. As foster parents we must think through each of our actions not just because of how others see them but also because of the child in our care. There are many forms of trauma. While one child could use a back rub to get to sleep another child might scream out in fright. Once a child is in your care, and you are taking each day at a time, it can prove useful to talk to your caseworker about habits and routines.

In most states the “no co-sleeping” rule is geared toward newborns and infants as SIDs is a top concern. The rule is also more about “no bed-sharing” than it is about utilizing co-sleeping habits. Talk with your caseworker so you know what your boundaries are.

Getting children to sleep and stay asleep is a struggle most parents sympathize with.

For foster parents I urge everyone to document as much as you can. If you have questions send your case-worker an email. Email is a good way to communicate and document concerns. Most case-workers document the sleeping habits of children in care anyway. Any answers you receive concerning sleeping habits need to be documented so if questions arise in the future you have something to refer back to.

Most foster parents will find that while bed-sharing is a “no-no” that utilizing co-sleeping habits is normal. In Tennessee where the system is working on prudent parenting and creating normalcy for foster children, using co-sleeping habits such as holding a toddlers hand until they fall asleep is just a normal part of life.

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