I will start this by boldly disclosing that whenever my husband is not in Japan, and there is thus some space in our double bed, our 4- and 8-year old children (and an army of their soft toys) sleep with me.
This is not a public way to let my husband in on the fact that our children don’t sleep in their own beds (or that their soft toys have cracked our defences and occupied our bed). No. He is well aware of this slightly unconventional sleeping arrangement for Western families. Instead, ‘boldly disclosing’ refers to the fact that many Europeans, including us before we moved to Japan, think that children who have passed their early infancy are as ill placed in their parents’ beds as Donald Trump would be in the White House.
And because the typical sleeping arrangement of 4- and 8-year old children in most Western families is not in their parents’ bed, when I’ve told my European/American friends that I, as the norm, co-sleep with my children, I usually get one of the following five responses.
1. Once you let them in your bed, you’ll never get them back to their own beds!
I’m not too worried about this – when my children (or anyone’s children) hit puberty I don’t think us parents can persuade or even bribe them to co-sleep with us. For a 13-year old, co-sleeping with their parent(s) is nearly as embarrassing as their parent holding their hand, walking them to school and giving them a peck on the cheek or some age inappropriate advice like: ‘Go get them tiger!’ at the school gate. So, I really don’t think we’ll be stuck with them in our bed until they go to university.
2. Really?! You don’t come across as a hippie-type.
Maybe I don’t come across as a hippie-type because I am not a hippie (whatever that term refers to nowadays). But for clarity, we (a) vaccinate our kids, (b) believe that clear boundaries are good for children, (d) are not vegan, (e) don’t live in a commune, and (f) don’t homeschool our kids. Furthermore, (g) neither my husband nor I have dreadlocks and (h) both of us do wear deodorant. That is, we do not display any qualities (other than co-sleeping) that could potentially be associated with some non-mainstream child-rearing or life-style ethos.
3. Isn’t it a bit strange to share a bed with an 8-year old?
I suppose in some cultures it would be strange, but in the context of Japan it isn’t. Inner-city Japanese homes are often quite small – so small that there may only be one bedroom (tatami room) in the apartment. This means that urban Japanese parents and children often share one bedroom, on the floor of which the family sleeps on a row of futons (or on one bigger futon). Even if there was an extra bedroom, many Japanese parents still prefer to sleep in the same room as their children, at least until the children go to elementary school (i.e. until 6 years of age) or even until the children hit puberty.
I suppose it would not be completely strange to co-sleep with your parents in the Finnish context either (although this is not the norm in Finland). Like Japanese homes, Finnish summer cottages often have limited space. These extremely common holiday homes in the Finnish countryside may only have one big room in which the family not only sleeps, but also cooks, eats and spends time. This means that families may share one double bed whenever they go to their summer cottage. I recall having shared a bed with my sister(s) and/or cousin(s), and my granny, granddad or parent(s) at our family’s summer cottage when I was elementary school age, and there was nothing unusual about it. And when I took some of my British friends to my family’s summer cottage some years ago, due to limited space, me, my now husband and two of our (female) friends, in Finnish summer cottage style, shared a double bed (see photo).
4. Do you actually get any sleep when sharing a bed with your kids?
Ok, this can be a problem. You see, my daughter is a bit of a kicker, hitter and hugger while asleep; both of my children get hot easily and kick off the duvet – that one duvet that we share – every night; and my son grinds his teeth and mumbles in his sleep. Nevertheless, I sleep better when the kids are in my bed than if when they are in their own beds for the following reasons.
First, we have earthquakes in Japan, and so, I worry about the children’s bunk bed not coping well should a strong earthquake spin our apartment block like a mechanical bull spins a drunken wannabe cowboy. The wee hours between 2-4 am when I’ve lain in my bed awake worrying if the kids will be squashed under their bunk bed during an earthquake have convinced me that our double bed is a much safer choice for our kids than their bunk bed.
Second, our 4-year old daughter’s Type1 diabetes means that we have to keep an eye on her blood sugar levels day and night. Having her next to me at night means that I don’t have to get out of bed to check that she’s ok. And the level of sleep deprivation the last four years of our daughter’s illness has inflicted upon us means that I would happily sleep on a plank of wood next to a cross between a skunk and a hippo if it means I can just half open one eyelid for one second to check that the skunk-hippo is alive and breathing, and then drift off again.
So, even though it might seem crazy to most Western parents, due to our circumstances, I sleep better when the kids sleep next to me.
The reason why I co-sleep with our children is not because of lack of space or because we have adopted some trendy child-rearing fad, whereby physical contact with your child 24-7 is imperative. Neither have we made a deliberate decision to adopt Japanese families’ sleeping arrangements in the name of cultural integration.
In addition to the reasons explained in section 4 (i.e. earthquakes and our daughter’s diabetes) I’ve come to realise that I simply love having them close to me during the night, I suppose partly because I can’t have them close to me during the day (as they go to school/nursery and I go to work).
It is a relatively short period of time when my children are willing to snuggle up next to me, after which those nights are gone forever. So, when at 2am my daughter elbows me in the eye and, whilst in his sleep, my son mumbles the melody to Village People’s YMCA, I smile to myself, think how lovely it is to co-sleep with my children and go back to sleep.