At two in the morning the other day, I found myself swaying slowly from side to side, cradling my preschooler and whisper-singing the Oompa Loompa song from Willy Wonka “like a lullaby”, per her barked instructions. Like most parents, I’m particularly fixated on sleep and how to optimize it. As I drew out the jig-like tune to make it as soporific as possible, the kindergartner whimpering from the top bunk and the preschooler occasionally flashing me a sadistic grin, I was pretty certain I wasn’t optimizing anything except for the likelihood that when we did eventually nod off, we’d all dream about tiny orange men.
The preschooler, due to a combination of Covid and minimal square footage, happily slept the first two years of her life in a Pack ’n Play in our closet. But when the girls started clamoring to sleep in the bunk bed together, I entertained visions of pre-bed whispering that would render grownup involvement moot, and strengthen their sisterly bonds while leading to deeper sleep all around. Plus, I assumed sleeping together in piles was hardwired into us, from the days when we sought safety from roaming mastodons. So I put the bumper on the bottom bunk and figured, what’s the worst that can happen?
“I’m cowering on the floor of their room,” my husband, Dave, texted the first night, a full hour after “bedtime”. “My arm fell asleep so I had to put her down. Now she won’t let me leave.” Pulsing ellipse, then, “I’m so hungry.”
I tiptoed in to relieve him, as he scurried out to scarf down dinner. Two full minutes of silence. A cackle from the top bunk.
“I’m having the funniest dream ever, Mama!” my kindergartner shrieked. I lay down on the floor. The preschooler popped up like a prairie dog.
“NO LYING DOWN, MAMA,” she bellowed, a pint-sized Sigourney Weaver-as-Zuul in Ghostbusters.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we tried everything. Crying it out. Not crying it out. Playing the silent game. A sticker chart. The promise of any breakfast they could dream up, including, straight up, a bowl of sprinkles. Nothing worked. They’d chatter and play until way past bedtime, then wake each other up multiple times each night. At the end of a particularly grueling stretch, the preschooler declared that she no longer cared about stickers or sprinkles, a scorched earth negotiating tactic straight out of Genghis Khan’s playbook. I nearly fell to the floor, weeping.
Set aside whatever parental judgment you may harbor about the rights and wrongs of bargaining chips, not holding the line, and acquiescing to fruitless and idiotic demands, Oompa-related or other. The bigger question, in my mind, was whether my end goal – two happy kiddos calming each other’s anxiety and sleeping deeply because of it – was worthy, considering we were no longer sharing the tundra with predators, and we had the space to opt out if we wanted.
The research and advice about bed sharing was all over the place, and the data about room sharing nearly non-existent. Some studies I read concluded that sharing a room or bed could maximize REM-stage sleep. Others concluded that doing so would do the opposite. I learned crazy facts, like that birds can shut half their brain off to sleep and keep the other half awake, and if they’re all hanging out in a line, the ones on the edges will have half their brains awake, while the ones in the middle will be fully asleep. Oh, to be a middle-of-the-pack pigeon on a telephone pole, I thought as I curled up in the fetal position on the floor by the bunk bed, acquiescing to whatever commands were coming from above.
“If you asked me what was the best way to get the best night’s sleep, it would be everyone separate, in their preferred environment,” Dr Haviva Veler, director of the Weill Cornell Pediatric Sleep and Breathing Disorders Center, told me when I reached her by phone. So much for my mastodon theory. Various anthropologists surmise our circadian rhythms evolved to differ – you might be a night owl, your spouse a lark – because if more people are waking up at various intervals, it minimizes the chances that every single person will be snoozing the moment a predator lopes by.
Of course, as anyone can tell you who enjoys a pre-bed snuggle or chat, that’s not the whole story.
“We don’t live in a vacuum, and there’s the emotional part, the psychological effects of sharing a space at night-time,” Veler continued. Numerous sleep researchers told me that calming anxiety is the number one reason to throw siblings together, and others brought up that it might have less to do with sleep quality than it does with values. I expect you to share a room, I expect you to be a flexible person, you’re saying, in effect.
And the psychological effects often pass down from generation to generation. My friend, who shared a room for years with her two younger sisters, is now forcing her two young children to sleep together, actual sleep be damned. This, despite the existence of a third bedroom and a very practical husband who calmly points out, as one or the other child starts shrieking in the middle of the night, that they could bypass all-house wake-ups should they so choose.
“I don’t really know that it’s making them any better at sharing or any more tolerant of sounds/disturbances while sleeping,” she emailed me, “but I almost don’t really care at this point because it makes me so happy to wake up and find both of them in their cribs smiling up at me (or simultaneously cry-screaming as is sometimes the case).”
Dr Veler has had parents come to her trying to figure out why their children fall asleep just fine together, but wake up in the middle of the night. It has to do with the concept of “sleep association”, or what you need in order to fall asleep, or get back to sleep quickly if you wake up. For me, that’s a pitch-dark room, an ice-cold climate, and Dave not moving or breathing audibly, something which has resulted in him dutifully affixing Breath Right strips to his nose to assuage middle-of-the-night snores. (“It’s like an oxygen wind tunnel in there,” he’ll say, morose, as he curls into the fetal position and settles in for a long night of trying to remain immobile, lest he provoke my nocturnal rage.)
“We figured out that part of their sleep association was chatting with their sibling,” Veler said, “but when they didn’t have them in the middle of the night, they couldn’t get back to sleep.”
Which is adorable. Albeit not at two in the morning. Veler’s recommendation? Separate the kids so they can start a new sleep association. Then reunite them if you so choose.
So, though the girls begged to stay in their bunk bed, I laid down the law: our household sleep strategy moving forward would be to maximize REM-stage sleep at the expense of all emotional closeness.
It worked fine until daylight savings time, that most dreaded celestial corrective, which was probably the cause of the preschooler waking up at random hours of the night. And so, I found myself once again cradling her and whisper-singing the Oompa Loompa song until her breathing calmed. Then I’d tip-toe back to my room, where the steady sound of Dave’s clear nasal passages would lull me to bed. I knew we’d wake each other up shortly, but fat chance I’d rethink my night-time environment in favor of something as clinical as optimizing sleep.
Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age