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5 Reasons To Sleep With Your Baby (And One Good Reason Not To)

Affiliate Disclosure | in Motherhood | by | with 104 Comments

Is Co-Sleeping

Is Co-Sleeping As Dangerous As Putting Your Baby To Bed With A Butcher Knife?

The Milkwaukee Health Department thinks so, and last year they launched a controversial campaign to let the world know. “Bedsharing is dangerous,” says Anna Benton, Maternal and Child Health Division Manager for the City of Milwaukee. “We don’t think there’s any debate. We don’t think there is a quote un-quote safe way to share a bed with your baby.” (source, emphasis mine)

How sad.

While real risk factors like vaccines and chemical-laden mattresses get a nice, squishy hug from government agencies, parents are being scared away from the one thing that in most cases actually makes sleep safer. “But, there are studies!” some say. Yep, there are. But there are studies which examine whether the outcomes of soap opera coma patients are overly optimistic, too, and in my opinion that is about as useful. Why? Put simply, many of the “sleep safety” studies we’ve seen are funded by crib manufacturers.

A few years ago, it became apparent who was behind the curious disinformation campaigns about cosleeping. In May 2002, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released a weakly supported announcement purporting the dangers of cosleeping.

Interestingly, the announcement was sponsored by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) – in other words, the crib industry. The crib industry went further by providing “Safe Sleep” brochures to Toys ‘R Us and other venues, creating a video clip for wide media distribution, and granting continued “education” on the topic to doctors.

Frightening families away from safe, natural cosleeping sells more than more cribs. Research shows that cosleeping supports breastfeeding. Crib sleeping makes breastfeeding less convenient and more difficult; therefore, enforcing crib sleeping sells more formula.

. . . Despite the 2002 CPSC statement about cosleeping “dangers,” the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) continued to support safe cosleeping. But now, with encouragement from SIDS organizations that are backed by pacifier and formula company funding, the AAP seems to have joined the anti-cosleeping bandwagon – and has begun plugging pacifier use, as well.

Healthy Child: Does Co-Sleeping Lead To SIDS?

Now, I Could Go On All Day . . .

About ridiculous studies and the industries they serve: like the recent Standford report which claimed organic and conventional produce are basically no different (funded by biotech firms like Monsanto, of course!) Instead, though, let’s examine what independent research really says, and by all means let’s use precise definitions rather than jumbling a variety of practices together like these so-called research endeavors do.

Co-sleeping is sharing a sleep environment with your baby. This may be by sharing your bed safely, having a sidecar arrangement next to the bed or even having a crib in the room that is within arm’s reach. It is the cultural norm for 90% of the world’s population (source)

Co-sleeping should NOT occur in unsafe environments, such as couches and waterbeds. These types of arrangements are often included in studies about co-sleeping dangers, which dramatically skews the results. Also, co-sleeping is not putting baby in a bed with an adult other than mama, who is biologically hardwired for sharing sleep with an infant (research indicates that some dads change their sleep patterns over the course of a few months to become more aware as well).

Now, with that said, if you WANT to co-sleep with your baby here are five reasons to tell the Milwaukee Department of Health where to put their campaign:

Reason #1: Your Baby’s Heart Goes Pitter-Patter Over You

Babies and their mothers share a deeply physiological connection. In one study of infant reaction to mothers, fathers, and strangers, an infant girl was brought into a lab and set in a plastic seat that was curtained off from distractions. The baby was then approached by her mother, then her father, and then a stranger.

Chest monitors on the baby and the adults showed that the baby synchronized her heart rate to that of the mother or father when they approached, but she did not synchronize her heart rate to the stranger’s.

The data suggests that babies and their caretakers are entwined in a homeostatic relationship, with the baby clicking in with the parents to achieve some sort of balance.”

Our Babies, Ourselves, p. 38 (emphasis mine)

Isn’t that amazing? And it just gets better: “Babies who sleep close to their mothers enjoy ‘protective arousal,’ a state of sleep that enables them to more easily awaken if their health is in danger, such as breathing difficulties’, says this article, which adds that “Infants who sleep near to parents have more stable temperatures, regular heart rhythms, and fewer long pauses in breathing compared to babies who sleep alone. This means baby sleeps physiologically safer.”

Reason #2: You Keep Your Baby Safe

On the flipside, mothers are deeply tuned in with their babies, often to the point where sleep cycles are synchronized so closely that they will naturally transition within a few seconds of each other. If something happens, the mother can act quickly on her baby’s behalf. According to the same article:

Trusted research by Dr. James McKenna, Director of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory of the University of Notre Dame, showed that mothers and babies who sleep close to each other enjoy similar protective sleep patterns [as Asian cultures, which co-sleep and have the lowest SIDS rates known].  Mothers enjoy a heightened awareness of their baby’s presence, what I call a ‘nighttime sleep harmony,’ that protects baby.  The co-sleeping mother is more aware if her baby’s well-being is in danger.”

For more on how sleep sharing improves infant breathing and reduces the risk of SIDS, check out this article from Dr. Sears.

Reason #3: Makes Breastfeeding Easier

Bedsharing babies nurse about twice as often as those who sleep alone, which is beneficial for helping mamas maintain their milk supply, suppressing ovulation, and helping a baby who s on the small side gain weight. Best of all, though, you don’t have to get up several times a night to nurse. As someone who has breastfed while bedsharing and also gotten up to nurse a baby throughout the night (he was in bed with me but could not nurse lying down due to a tongue-tie), I can say definitively that getting up to breastfeed throughout the night is FAR more exhausting. This, of  course, leads to . . .

Reason #4: You Get More Sleep

Which in my book is what makes #4 so awesome! And it’s not just my experience – researchers at the College of Nursing at East Tennessee State University found that although breastfed babies sleep less than their formula-fed counterparts, their mothers actually sleep more! (source)

However, there **is** a tradeoff. You get more sleep, but it’s in a lighter state than if you were sleeping alone.  The same goes for your baby, too, and there’s a good reason why:

Babies who sleep with their mothers and breastfeed spend less time in the deepest  stages of sleep. Light stage sleep is thought to be physiologically more appropriate and safer for babies, because it is easier to awaken to terminate apneas (episodes where one stops breathing), than it is when babies are in deeper stages of sleep. The mother’s movements and the smells of mother’s breast milk nearby both contribute to the baby remaining in lighter sleep for longer periods of time.”

~ An Overview of The Benefits of Co-Sleeping

In other words, being a “good sleeper” is not always in the best interest of young babies – checking in often and establishing good breathing patterns is!

Reason #5: You Might Actually Enjoy It!

Don’t tell CNN, though, because obviously any aspect of parenting you manage to enjoy means you are really doing it for **you.**

Just between you and me, though, I absolutely love that my first memory from this morning is my son schooching up to kiss me on my eye and then wrestle me into a cuddle.

The smell of breast milk serves as “homing beacon” that keeps baby from roaming in bed

One Surprising Reason NOT To Bedshare

While all major organizations agree that room-sharing arrangements are beneficial and may even reduce the risk of SIDS by half, there is no consensus when it comes to bedsharing. The American Academy of Pediatrics says never ever while UNICEF and the World Health Organization give the thumbs up.

Who should we believe? According to Dr. James McKenna, head of the University of Notre Dame’s Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, “Bedsharing . . . can be made either safe or unsafe, but it is not intrinsically one nor the other.”

So what makes bedsharing unsafe? Here are some of the excluding criteria most experts agree on: “Obese parents; parents who smoke (either during pregnancy or at present); parents sleeping on a waterbed, recliner, sofa, armchair, couch or bean bag; parents who sleep on multiple pillows, a sagging mattress or a sheepskin or use heavy bedding, such as comforters or duvets; sleeping in overheated rooms; parents under the influence of drugs or alcohol; other children or pets who can or are likely to climb into the bed; and stuffed animals on the bed that could cover the baby’s face.” (source)

And then there’s one that took me completely by surprise: formula feeding. Now y’all, please believe me when I say this is not a jab at mothers who can’t or don’t breastfeed. I’ve had my own share of struggles when it comes to breastfeeding and I’m just not going there.

With that said, evidence suggests that formula feeding disrupts the biological feedback loop between mother and baby in two ways:

Sleep Position

Breastfed babies instinctually stay close to their mothers at night. The smell of their mothers milk serves as a homing beacon that keeps them from roaming around and getting stuck.

According to this article, “Data from Consumer Product Safety Commission indicate that the greatest risks to a baby sleeping in a bed with an adult is not, as many would assume, from an adult overlaying or rolling over onto the baby, but from the infant strangling or becoming wedged or trapped between a wall, a piece of furniture, the bed frame, headboard or footboard and the mattress.”

Another way baby’s orientation on bed tends to be affected by formula feeding is that breastfed babies tend to sleep at chest level with their mother, while formula fed babies tend to be placed further up on the bed near the pillows.

Sleep Awareness

The second factor is that formula-fed babies tend to sleep more deeply and wake less often. Because the sleep patterns of mothers often synchronizes with the baby’s this can lead to decreased awareness of one another in the sleep environment. For these reasons Dr. McKenna strongly recommends co-sleeping with a sidecar/nearby crib arrangement but not bedsharing.

So How Do I Know If I’m Bedsharing Safely?

That’s a great question! Here’s a safe co-sleeping checklist.

Do you co-sleep? Why or why not?

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104 Responses to 5 Reasons To Sleep With Your Baby (And One Good Reason Not To)

  1. Michelle says:

    We started with #1 DS in a queen bed with us. When he started getting active, DH built wooden bedrails and turned our bed into a queen-sized cot for all of us to share LOL. When #2 DS was getting close to due, we put a king single bed against the wall and pushed the queen bed against it. Then when #3 DD was on her way, we stood the king single mattress up against the wall, pushed the queen bed against it, got rid of the “big cot” rails and bought a fire-engine bunk bed with solid “walls”. Pushed that up against the queen bed. By this stage DH had moved into the tv room (being a night owl), so now I have baby and me in the queen, the boys in their bunks, still feeling protected and close, and date nights with DH once the kids are asleep. Works well for us. I had to stay in hospital for 10 days after DD was born, and until the midwives got used to me, it was so funny to have them come in, look into the empty plastic box bassinet and gasp “where’s your baby???” I would then show her snuggled up sound asleep and smiling by my side in the hospital bed. By the end of the 10 days, I was getting compliments about how calm and relaxed we both were, and the midwives were coming into my room to get a moment’s peace and quiet from the chaos elsewhere 😛

    • Heather says:

      Lol, the “where’s your baby” line had me giggling! So fun to hear what is working for your family. We have a queen and king size bed next to each other right now and are quite happy with the arrangement.

  2. N says:

    I have bed shared with both my boys and had them on a crib mattress next to me until they turned 2. My husband removed the bed frame from our bed and we slept on the mattresses only, with the boys besides us, so they wouldn’t roll off the bed and fall, or roll under the bed.As infants, they were both formula fed as I had no breast milk, but they slept on my arm, no pillows, just mom’s chubby arms, that way if one moved away or woke up, I would also wake up because I didn’t feel a warm, small,, fuzzy head on my arm.Now they are 3 and 6 respectively, and awesome little guys, who are independent and happy, and they now sleep on their own bed frame-less bed.(I’m scared to put frames on the bed, because they jump a lot, and I don’t want them to get hurt).

  3. Nikki says:

    We did a sidecar co-sleeping arrangement for our now 3-year-old’s first year, and then a crib in the same room when he outgrew the sidecar. By the time he moved into his own room at about 1.5, he was perfectly happy to do it. I wasn’t able to breast-feed him, so when he awoke hungry, my saint of a husband would fix and feed him a bottle of my milk while I expressed another one. I expressed until he was 9 months and the logistics of an out-of-state move made expressing every bottle impossible, but he was still right there with us.

    My now 14-month-old daughter was another story. From moment one in the hospital (after a very complicated pregnancy and full-term induced birth no thanks to pre-eclampsia) she made it very clear that the only way she would sleep–ever–was cuddled up to me. So, with ditched our queen for a king bed (which DH had always wanted anyway!) and baby moved in. DH has been one of the dads that has adjusted into a more baby-aware sleep. It was pretty cool to watch that evolve!

    The reason I write this comment is that I think co-sleeping may have saved my daughter’s life. Twice during her first year I awoke thinking something wasn’t right. What wasn’t right was that I could not see/feel/sense her breathing, and checking her confirmed that she was not. Both times I roused her and she was fine, but some part of me wonders what might have happened if she had been in another room in the house.

    She’s become a bit more independent in bed now, sometimes cuddling up to Daddy, or just lying spread-eagle in the middle of the bed, but she’s still a momma’s girl, and this momma is so glad to have had the freedom to make that choice. I’m quite sure it benefited all of us, because even though she fussed and wanted to eat quite often all night, all I had to do to make her happy again was make sure she could latch on and everyone was back to dreamland. We all got (and get) more sleep!

  4. Paula says:

    Co-Sleeping killed my nephew. Please do not sleep with your baby. If you do make sure it is one big bed and only one parent.

  5. Holly says:

    I thought babies NEEDED to get into a deep sleep, for brain development and growth???

  6. Courtney says:

    Reason #2 is so true! I co-sleep with my 2 month old daughter and almost every night I wake up just a few seconds before she does. I just thought it was a bizarre coincidence because it happens every night, its cool to know its not just coincidental!
    I love co-sleeping, middle of the night feedings are so easy and I love being able to instantly reach my baby if something happens.

  7. lindsay says:

    I live in Milwaukee so I feel the need to defend the “campaign” a bit. My husband is a cop here and sees irresponsible co-sleeping far too often here. Beds are filled with children of all ages and parents are unaware of safe sleeping conditions for their children. People here use the pack n plays they are provided with from our government for storage. My husband has to explain why the sleeping conditions are unsafe but then has some big backlash from the uninformed parents. While I agree completely with what you are saying, here in Milwaukee it is best to have these campaigns. I have absolutely no issue with co-sleeping, but when it isn’t practiced safely and responsibly, it can be deadly. Unfortunately those are too often the cases here.

  8. Kathy says:

    I co-slept with both daughters until just this month, they are now 4 and 6. Our morning cuddling sessions are priceless and foster in them the knowledge that time stops for us when we are together. HOWEVER, things change when you introduce mood altering drugs such as sleep aids, alcohol or whatever. If daddy imbibes, best make sure he is on the ‘other’ side of the bed. The reality is, we are nearly unconscious if we have been drinking alcohol or such and our ‘drug induced coma’ will kill baby.

  9. Bing says:

    I find it odd how you can wave off the research that disagrees with your point of view out of hand, then go ahead and use…wait for it…”research” to support your point of view just a few sentences later. I don’t care much about co-sleeping either way, but I do care about confirmation bias, and this post is logically fatally flawed because of it.

  10. Lexi says:

    I stumbled upon this blog thanks to another blogger and I’m loving all the info. I don’t have kids yet, but I’m finding this cosleeping very interesting and it makes a lot of sense! I’m just wondering though…how do you and your partner find time for practicing baby-making when you are sharing a bed with children? I’m sorry if this is a TMI question, but because I don’t have kiddos yet I can’t quite think through the logistics of this…

  11. Brittany says:

    Why no co-sleeping for formula feeders? I was just wondering the reason behind that. (And this isn’t to start any arguments, I have no race in the horse since I have no babies yet!)

  12. Sofia says:

    Are you saying you’re 100% certain that your bed is a safe sleep environment for your infant? That you’d never ever roll over too close, pull a cover too high, make the temperature too warm?

  13. Becky says:

    I didn’t sleep well with the baby in my bed — that lasted for about a month with my firstborn. My sleep was too light, and I was constantly worried I would roll over on them like the woman in 1 Kings 3. So they slept in a bassinet that was up against our bed. I could lift them out to nurse without having to get up. It was so nice. My babies were sleeping through the night at 3 months so I was able to get great sleep too!

  14. Becky says:

    Just thought I’d add… our children sleep with us now. Around 18 months, they began showing an interest in our bed, even though they have their own bed right up against ours! But, I must say a queen size bed is a little cramped for a party of four.

  15. Tracy says:

    I beds share with my 3 month old as she sleeps so much better and only wakes once to nurse. Otherwise she barely sleeps and wants to nurse all night. I am just afraid about the chemicals in our mattress. We don’t have an organic mattress and I know there has been an article written about the dangers of off gassing mattresses for infants. Has anyone been worried about this? If so, did you wrap your mattress or have another solution. We bought our daughter an organic mattress but she will not sleep in it! Would love your feedback, Heather. Thanks!

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  17. Kasey says:

    I actually live in Milwaukee and yes, the campaign against co-sleeping has been very strong. Most if not all of the co-sleeping deaths in Milwaukee have occurred among African-American parents who were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. To me it just seems like an easy way to scare parents of all races and cultures away from a natural and beneficial practice. The inner city of Milwaukee is riddled with problems, but unfortunately we see many of these problems addressed in idiotic ways. Instead of taking aim at co-sleeping, how about taking aim at responsible parenting, not doing drugs, waiting till you’re married, etc. etc.

  18. Matt B. says:

    I think you could have done a better job of talking about safe means to achieving a safe co-sleeping environment. Instead you gave it like two lines. It’s a disservice to your readers. Glossing over it “like everyone knows” is foolish & dangerous. PS The “special ability” of a mother to sleep safely with a baby is bed is a dangerous lie. It is simply not true. The “rollover” deaths that happen daily attest to this. Something as simple as a hand on a belly or chest of and infant can have tragic consequences.

    Want to know the REAL impetus behind this campaign? (Educated guess since I am on the West coast). The investigators, coroners and ER pediatricians all got tired of seeing dead babies. Contrary to one of your commenters, it’s not just drunk and under the influence parents this happens to. It’s loving parents as well.

    I am sure you are well intentioned, loving and care for your readers. I only know of you because a friend linked your article. But please know (from my personal experience on a dozen occasions as a child abuse investigator) this happens way too often. So maybe do another article (which you may have already done – I don’t know and don’t have time to look) on what a safe co-sleeping environment is and the ways to create one.

    Thanks for listening. I can tell you the pain I feel and the others feel is deep, each time.

    Now imagine the parents pain.

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  20. Jessica says:

    I know this is an older article but just wanted to share. I started off co sleeping with my newborn but it was not a healthy thing for my husband and I. we barely had to time to connect and touch and with baby in the bed it put everything to a screeching haunt. to feel safe we would sleep in the middle of the bed and dad would end up on the couch. it just wasn’t fair to him.

    eventually we got a rock and play and stuck baby right next to bed at the same level. our relationship improved greatly and so did our sleep. and the baby would wake to nurse until he was weaned.

    Just wanted to share because it’s not always the family’s best interest to cosleep. although there are benefits for mother and baby, there are other people (like my husband) that deserved healthy sleep and time and touch with his wife. Thanks for letting me post.

    • Heather says:

      Glad you shared your experience, Jessica! Just to clarify, though, most experts define co-sleeping as baby sleeping in the same room but not necessarily sharing a bed. Glad you found what worked for you :)

  21. Bre says:

    I’m from the Milwaukee area and am very familiar with this issue. It is very regular that a baby has died due to co-sleeping. So sad. But most of these cases fall into a category you mentioned, sleeping on a couch, waterbed, or the caretaker was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

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  24. ashley says:

    I absolutely cannot sleep with the baby in bed because i often wake up in a frantic state from a strange dream and don’t have control over my movements for several seconds. it’s quite a physical experience and very dangerous. my husband came in from snow blowing about midnight and i had fallen asleep with the baby on my chest and as he walked into the room i sat straight up so fast and the baby came forward and luckily my husband was there to catch him. i have hit my hubby pretty hard trying to get out of bed, i’ve sprinted across the house, and ran into walls and doors. i think it’s stress related but as much as i miss my babies in their crib, i feel much better about them being a little further away. they do stay in my room in a crib for about 6 months, but both babies after the 2nd month have slept better when i just lay them down to sleep.

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  26. Mallory says:

    Thanks for putting some great insight out there for people, Heather. I enjoy reading all of your articles. I just thought I’d chime in from the opposite side of the spectrum just in case there are some people out there wondering about the other side. My husband and I enjoy our bed being “our” bed. We love fostering an independence in our son, who has been sleeping on his own since day one. He slept in our room in a Pack and Play for six weeks until we put him into his own room in his crib. We are very fervent on keeping some parts of our lives–our marriage–the same, and this is one boundary we didn’t cross. Our son has an amazing relationship with the both of us. Not following the co-sleeping method doesn’t make your child love you any less is what I’m trying to get at in case there are some moms out there wondering. I felt the same way about breastfeeding when that didn’t work out for me. I was guilty over that. I thought our relationship wouldn’t be the same, and I wouldn’t have that bond. That was for sure wrong. There is no perfect way of parenting; you just have to try different things and do what works for you, always keeping your home as your main priority. Your baby isn’t going to be happy when mommy and daddy are miserable. Are you going to be able to give your child adequate time to play? Are you completely present and rested? Do you feel guilty because you spend more time worrying about your children’s needs than your spouse’s. These are all things my parents dealt with, and I vowed that it wouldn’t happen to me.

  27. Gabi says:

    I just accidentally came upon this…Great article, you hit all the salient points in a simple and informative way. Well done. Bed sharing is SO important for mama and baby…healthier, natural, traditional…and wonderful! I slept with all three of my children, and they are far older now, and I remember those as precious times. Kids grow up SO fast, the baby/toddler season is just too short. I find sometimes that arguments I hear against bedsharing are based in selfishness. Mamas need to nurse little baby thru the night, and some older babies need it, too, and having that sweet child tucked in by you makes it so much easier. The suppression of ovulation is really important for mama’s health, too. For those who can bedshare, they really should do it (and I think most of us can)…you won’t regret in the future that you spent more intimate cuddle time with your young child and helped preserve his/her health. As for concerns about how mama and daddy spend “special time” together? Well, we had no issues. Daddy can still touch mama and cuddle her, even with a bed in the baby…it’s a dad, mom, baby snuggle fest. And sex can be done in any room in the house, as well as on a bed with a baby tucked in on another spot on the bed. :)

  28. Carrie says:

    I know this is an old article but just came across this. I, too, am from Milwaukee. It has been a few years since I had this issue but I still get riled up when I think about how heavily they were battling against co-sleeping even then. It is wrong to make women feel guilty for doing what is natural, good for Mom, and good for Baby, rather than educate them on how to do it safely.

    If you look at the statistics and the studies, there simply is no rational justification for the anti-co-sleeping campaign. Each individual case of co-sleeping death is very sad but should be kept in perspective. First, as we know, the risk of SIDS death is lower in co-sleeping babies – it’s just easier to point fingers at mothers in the case of co-sleeping deaths. SIDS deaths are more common but the media doesn’t make sensational stories about them like they do for co-sleeping deaths. Second, over 60% of women admit to co-sleeping in the same bed with their babies on surveys. Yet in the greater Milwaukee area (in 2009 at least), babies who co-slept regularly were literally in greater danger of dying in a car accident than they were of dying during co-sleeping. How come no one tells you that you’re a bad mom for putting your kid in a car?!

    I tried not to co-sleep with my colicky child for the first 3 months – but he refused to sleep unless he was cuddled up against me and/or nursing – and finally just gave in. I soon realized that I had been in greater danger of falling into a deep sleep, rolling over my child and smothering him BEFORE I was intentionally co-sleeping with him because I was just so #$&*!!&@# exhausted.

  29. Lauren says:

    Hey Heather, when did you stop co-sleeping with your babies? My little boy is almost 7 months old and still sleeps in our bed. My husband, who has been sleeping on the couch for the past few weeks, wants to get him to sleep either in the pack in play in our room or his crib, but I don’t think our son is going to go for it. And we’re definitely not doing the crying it out thing. Eeks I don’t know what to do!

  30. Sara says:

    Mommypotamus! I love your alias! You really churn it out on this comprehensive site. You give me hope for thinking straight and deeply after my first baby is born, just about any minute now…

    My question is simple and one you may have answered elsewhere but…you (or your readers) who co-sleep and bed-share/side-lying nurse, is there a mattress pad you love? That protects the mattress from the inevitable wetness that comes with creatures?

    Thanks for answering my simple Q. This site is a rich rich labor of love.

    With heart,
    SARA

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