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co-breathing

The one thing they told me at the hospital, more important than “breast is best,” was that I should never, under any circumstances, co-sleep with my child. I was a new mother in a state-of-the-art hospital in the Pacific Northwest, attended by midwives and nurses of the crunchy variety. The veracity with which the nurses warned me against the evils of formula, and the fact that they had rid themselves of a nursery apart from the NICU, choosing instead to implement the policy of mothers “rooming in” with their newborns, had prepared me to be bullied into an attachment-style parenting I wasn’t sure I agreed with. 

I had not been prepared for the strict instructions to nurse my child, swaddle him, and leave him in the bassinet while I tried to rest.

He was precious and surprising, this new creature, with his loud voice and deep brown eyes. He was content as long as I held him to my chest, and as exhausted as I was, I could think of nothing more satisfying than closing my eyes and sleeping to the rhythm of the rise and fall of his tiny breaths. 

I didn’t know then, that this is not only natural, but good—this desire to be close, sharing breaths, sharing peace. I didn’t know that what I was providing for him in those moments—and what he was providing for me—was the quiet calm of co-regulation, a response of our nervous systems, calming each of us as we stared into each others eyes. 

And we needed this, he and I, after the previous hours of transformation and trauma. My body, torn in two, as he came into the world. His body, ejected from the safety of his warm home into the overwhelm of new sensations: light, touch, sound. We were both in need of healing. We were both in need of safety. We needed the peace brought by the other’s presence.

But I was tired. So tired. I longed for someone to take him from me, turn off the lights, and acknowledge my deep need for rest.

We didn’t sleep much in those first weeks, he and I. All his little body seemed able to handle was about 45 minutes at a time, unless I was holding him. My days were spent on the bed in our guest room, watching movies and snuggling my baby, so afraid to lie down with him and close my eyes, lest I roll over onto him and crush him as I had been warned so often by the nurses.

The nights were the worst of it. My husband was a medical resident with brutal hours and immeasurable stress, so when Jacob’s screams pierced the dark, I wasn’t only worried about my newborn’s sleep. One early morning, in an act of desperation, I returned to the guest room, tucked Jacob into the crook of my arm, and gently laid us down together. His cries quieted and breath slowed, and as I breathed I tried to let our closeness calm my fears. 

Seven years later, we know now that his body is especially sensitive, thanks to his beautiful, neurodivergent brain. He craves closeness, but on his own terms. I often sense the need to ask before I snuggle him, and I am the one whose touch he allows the most. We still watch movies together, now on the couch, shoulder to shoulder. He presses his leg into mine, leaning his head against me. Sometimes he likes it when I rest my head on his, too. When it’s time for bed, he likes me to crawl in next to him, pinned between his body and the wall, so I can read him his favorite bedtime book. I measure my breaths and modulate my voice and witness him drifting off. 

In sleep, his face doesn’t look all that different than it did as a baby.

I think about that first night in the guest room, my heart pounding wildly as I weighed the odds of lying down next to him and offering him my presence so he—we—could sleep.

Please, I whispered into the darkness, please keep him safe. Let me wake if he is in danger. Please.

My face turned toward his, his breath on my cheek, I succumbed to the sweetness of this moment that was ours alone. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and slept. I slept and he slept, and we lay together breathing until rays of sun crept through the window and danced upon the bed. 

He was awake, watching me, quiet and content.

When we rose, I gave him a bottle, because that’s what worked for him.

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