More than just cuddles?

by Edwina Shaw


Social isolation is strongly linked to depression and other health problems. Human beings are social animals. We do better when we live with others. We are healthier and happier. Why then are so many of us ending up alone?

Lone-person households in Australia are predicted to rise by over 119 per cent by 2026 (QLD Local Govt. and Planning report on Household Projections). Some people are choosing to live alone, preferring their own company and exclusive control of the television and the affection of a dog, to the companionship and demands of another human being. Many, however, don’t choose this lifestyle but are forced to adopt it by circumstances such as divorce, widowhood, childlessness or estrangement from adult children, or the inability to find a suitable partner. For these people being alone is not empowering, it is lonely. And depressing.

I have often wondered if modern practices of child rearing are directly connected to this phenomenon of increasing social isolation and all that comes with it? Our high-separation society, where the individual is valued more than the group, has bred a plethora of social problems and human despair – family breakdown, drug abuse, mental illnesses and alarming suicide statistics.

Research conducted on Romanian orphans who died through lack of human touch is common knowledge. Yet most new parents are still advised to put their new baby in a separate room. To decorate a nursery and buy a cot. Invest in a monitor. To put as much distance between themselves and their infant, so much so that they need an electronic device to hear the baby cry.

Is it just me or is this where our social isolation begins?

From the earliest of ages we are separated from those who love us most, even they cannot bear to have us near them. This is the message we receive loud and clear even though it is not the intention. It is little wonder most of us grow up distrusting others and are hesitant to commit or become intimate in all but the basest of ways. We are encouraged to be sexually intimate by the media but what is sexual intimacy without an open sharing of emotions and experiences? I suppose “share your feelings now” wouldn’t sell many cars.

Warm bodily contact of a non-sexual nature is one of life’s greatest comforts and pleasures. It is not sex alone that makes us happy but the accompanying touch and sense of connection with another human being. We are all connected through our shared experience of life but modern society does all it can to trick us into believing otherwise.

However, as parents we have the power to teach our children about the importance of human connection and touch in the simplest of ways. Spending time in skin to skin contact with our babies, and bigger kids too, boosts their immune system because it lets them know they are loved and cared for, that they are in their bodies. In this world of emphasis on thought, of computers, television screens, and intellect, we often forget that we are, in fact, our bodies, not just computer-like gadgets floating in space. We are wonderfully, humanly animal.

Co-sleeping is an easy way of ensuring our babies get enough touch. For me as a mother it was one of the greatest joys of parenthood. The sweet smell of a baby cradled in my arms as we both slept, the silk of new skin making my fingertips suddenly feel as rough as bark, the joy of being there to catch the first smile of the day, the comfort of feeling a tiny heart beating close to mine and hearing every soft breath. All of this makes it difficult to conceive why anyone would want it any other way.

Mind you, I tried very hard, and against my better instincts, not to sleep with my first child, my daughter Bonnie. My midwife was old-school and told me horror stories of couples splitting up because there was a baby in the bed.

“They’ll be in there forever,” warned others.

“You’ll never get any sleep.” 

“You’ll spoil her.”

So I put her in a cot and hovered by its side. For the first few months anyway, until I figured out how to breastfeed lying down. Then I’d bring her into bed with me, and fall asleep, forgetting to put her back. And she loved it. She slept better than ever before, which meant that I did too. With a challenging high needs baby this was a breakthrough. She was happier, I was happier. And I had a beautiful cuddly bedmate to boot. What’s not to like?

I suppose my husband would’ve liked more room but even he appreciated the more peaceful nights. He is a light sleeper so I always kept her on my side of the bed, requiring some quite gymnastic moves when feeding from the opposite breast. But it worked. He slept (albeit with ear plugs), Bonnie fed, and I went back to sleep too. And we all woke up together, to smiles instead of screams. That’s better.

By the time baby two, our son Tom, came along we had it all worked out. Bonnie, then three, slept in a single bed pushed alongside ours, creating a huge, bigger than king-size sleeping space. Daddy had his side, then Mummy, then baby, then toddler. There was plenty of room. It was easy for us to care for both of our children, feeding Tom and soothing Bonnie’s nightmares with them both in easy reach.

As for the horror stories of couples splitting up – well it didn’t happen to me. There are plenty of other rooms in the house for having sex, and anyway young children are heavy sleepers, especially if they know Mummy and Daddy are close. Besides, sex is an act of love. I’d rather they woke up and saw me and Daddy loving each other than wake up alone, so far away that I couldn’t even hear them crying without a monitor.

I can’t say that my husband loved the idea. But he appreciated that we all got more sleep and he enjoyed waking to happy babies in the morning.

We stayed four in a bed till Bonnie was five and wanted to be more grown-up with her own room and space. Tom stayed with us till he was about five too. Then he moved out. It still feels strange that Daddy and I get to cuddle up at night and have the comfort of another person’s breathing when my little ones are alone in their beds. But they are happy there. It’s rare these days to even have someone crawling under our sheets in the morning. I miss it.

There are valid arguments against co-sleeping too, of course. If you want your babies to sleep through the night when you are breastfeeding it’s not easy if they’re in your bed within reach, and smell, of your milky boobs. Some research lists co-sleeping as a risk factor for SIDS. This is probably valid if you drink heavily or take drugs, prescription or otherwise. But, hopefully, if you are breastfeeding, none of those will apply. For a healthy sober mother, co-sleeping is more than safe.

I was always aware of my babies even in my sleep. I would wake seconds before they did for a feed. I heard the slightest variation in their breathing, could pull up the covers at the first cold breeze and tend every nightmare at the first whimper. Being able to do these things was a comfort for me as well as my children.

I don’t yet have proof that my children will be more able to form long-lasting intimate relationships, that I have protected them from loneliness. But I do know that they have a good start.

There is a photo on my desk of me as a baby, co-sleeping with my father who looks impossibly young. I am cradled under his arm, turned in towards him, face to face, eyes closed. I was lucky my mother had the wisdom to ignore the edicts of the sixties and bring me into bed too. She followed her instincts. As I eventually did mine.

We are human beings, creatures, not machines. Touch and connection is vital to our health and happiness. If you choose to co-sleep with your children, enjoy it.
Guilt free.

For me it was one of life’s greatest pleasures


© Edwina Shaw

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem