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Community Episode 1: My Kids Stole My Bed! (Listener Question)

Tackling the co-sleeping challenge.

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This week, host Kate Berlant gets a call for help. Listener Dan’s bed is crowded. Since the pandemic hit, his two kids have been afraid to sleep on their own. Dan wants to reclaim his bed and his privacy, and help his kids relearn to sleep on their own. Our sleep experts are here with a strategy to help get them out, and to give some global perspectives on co-sleeping.

Learn more and submit your own sleep questions at www.vox.com/areyousleeping

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Read Community Episode 1 Full Transcript Below

Photo credit: Sela Shiloni

[THEME MUSIC: High piano keys and then added in steady drum beat]

KATE [VO]: Hi, I’m Kate Berlant, and this is “Are You Sleeping?” — a podcast from the sleep experts at Mattress Firm and Vox Creative.

As we dive into the fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, world of sleep, we’re going to meet people with all sorts of different ways and whys of sleeping. And we’re going to hear from you, our listeners. Because, well, everyday sleeps. Or tries to.

Now, you can’t get good sleep unless you feel safe. But two plus years of a global pandemic has rattled that. I know my sleeping habits have changed. We’re having more nightmares, we’re sleeping in shifts — I mean, our lives have been impacted in so many ways, some ways we could never have expected.

So this week, we’re tackling one of those unexpected changes, like a new co-sleeping habit from one of our listeners.

[MUX OUT]

[MUX IN: Radio voice saying “Next message” then phone beep]

DAN: My name is Dan and I have two girls, one eleven, one seven. And my question is, how can I get them out of my bedroom? Since the pandemic began, they were sleeping one to two nights a week in our bedroom. And now we’re up to seven. They are completely afraid of and/or against sleeping on their own. I really love my kids, but I really would like to get my privacy back, and I need the strategy to get them back in their own rooms.

KATE: Yikes! Yeah, I get it. The pandemic has been very stressful and scary for all of us. [laughs] And we want to be close to comfort, or to someone who makes us feel safe. Lucky for my parents, I moved out of the house a long time ago.

[MUX: Upbeat guitar/bass and drum beats]

KATE: Well Dan, you are not alone. We’ve got our sleep expert, Dr. Shelby Harris, here. She’s a cognitive behavioral therapist in New York, who treats all sorts of sleep issues. Shelby, how common is co-sleeping in this country?

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Shelby Harris

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: It’s a very common issue when we talk about kids, toddlers, older kids coming into the parent’s bedroom. Usually at the beginning it is because of anxiety, and then it becomes just kind of a learned habit, most of the time. And I am not surprised that this happened at the beginning of the pandemic.

I mean, everyone, myself included, was feeling anxious. And there’s this connection, when we felt very disconnected from everyone else, and I’m sure the kids were probably feeling that way from school and their friends. This gave them a sense of connection.

KATE: Yeah, I mean, I understand, feeling connected is so important. But gotta say, I also hear Dan’s desire to get some of that privacy back.

Shelby, I’m guessing you’ve had a lot of patients come to you with this very issue. So, how do Dan and all those other amazing parents out there, just lovingly and amazingly, go ahead and push their children out of their bed?

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: So the first thing is just always to make sure that there isn’t a significant amount of daytime anxiety or separation anxiety overall. So, can they do playdates, go to school without any separation issues?

[MUX: Children’s voices very light in the background]

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: If that’s not a problem, and it’s really mostly just a night time thing, rewards can work for some kids, not all kids, but we do something that’s a more gentle approach called camping out. And essentially, what that is, you would have the parent go to sleep with them in their room at the same time.

[MUX: Electronic beat and then long piano keys playing one at a time]

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: So, a parent would go in. Kids would fall asleep, usually maybe sitting at the edge of the bed, or on the floor, on an air mattress sometimes. And then eventually, after a few days, we have the parent then move, maybe three feet away. Kids fall asleep with the parent there, parents there, but not necessarily rubbing their backs, just sitting there so they know that their presence.

It’s a very gradual process, until essentially you’re outside the door and the kids can’t really see you. So, they know you’re there, they can feel your presence, but they can start falling asleep without you needing to be right there.

KATE: Okay, so it is going to take some work. And when it comes to kids, I’m sure some things are easier said than done, but at least these do sound like good tools to try.

Thanks Shelby!

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

KATE [VO]: Of course, co-sleeping isn’t just a side-effect of the pandemic. It’s the way most people used to sleep. Sleep historian Benjamin Reiss is the author of, “Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World”. He says the idea that kids should sleep in a separate room is actually pretty new.

Professor and historian, Benjamin Reiss

BENJAMIN REISS: One of the things I just find endlessly weird about contemporary sleep that nobody anywhere in the world did until, you know, roughly 200 years ago in the West, was putting children in separate rooms, and training them to stay there all night long. And if you don’t do it in our society, there are some real problems. But it’s relatively new.

KATE [VO]: Those problems Benjamin mentioned, that’s mostly in the United States. We can get kind of freaked out about co-sleeping. Like, the kid will never be able to separate from their mom or dad if we all snuggle up together. And in our society, we sometimes assume generations sharing a bedroom is attached to economic hardship, instead of a choice.

But the reality is co-sleeping is still really normal in lots of cultures. Some believe that sleeping in the same bed or in the same room can strengthen a bond between a child and the parent.

So, when did co-sleeping become not the norm in this country? Benjamin says many Americans began sleeping apart from our kids somewhere around 1800.

BENJAMIN REISS: Around that period of industrialization when work and compulsory schooling outside of the home started getting people on these rigid schedules where you had to spread out, you had to control it, you had to kind of treat your body as a machine.

KATE [VO]: And let’s face it, we still treat our bodies like machines. And most nights, we just need the kids to go to sleep already!

But when it comes to who shares the bed, the reality is that sleep norms change over time, which I think is pretty cool. And it’s also kind of comforting. Like, there’s no one best way for a family to sleep. Or anyone to sleep for that matter…more on that next time.

[THEME MUSIC: High piano keys and then added in steady drum beat]

KATE [VO]: Thanks to Doctor Shelby and Benjamin Reiss for their expertise, and to Dan for his question.

Do you have a question or story for us? Head to VOX-DOT-COM SLASH ARE-YOU-SLEEPING and drop us a note — we would love to hear from you!

See you in two weeks with a brand new, full-length episode of “Are You Sleeping?” We’ll peek into the world of sisters with a rare ability to thrive on very little sleep. Is it a superpower, or is it a curse?

‘Til then … from the sleep experts at Mattress Firm and Vox Creative, sweet dreams — whether you’re sharing your bed or not.

[THEME MUSIC THROUGH END OF EPISODE]

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