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Sleep On Your Own, Kid: A Polemic Against Bed-Sharing

What with the snow and everything, I come to this story late, but I wasn't surprised to read Monday that an increase in accidental infant suffocation and strangulation deaths coincides with an increase in the practice known as bed-sharing.

Researchers aren't certain, but they think babies whose mothers keep them in the parental bed are more likely to end up dead than those babies who slumber in their own cribs.

That's always seemed pretty obvious to me but there is a pretty vocal group out there that believes that sharing a bed with an infant is the way to go. "Parents are sleeping with their babies because this is what they are designed to do. This is what they are supposed to do," anthropologist James J. McKenna of the University of Notre Dame told The Post's Rob Stein.

In my experience, the parents who are most strident about bed-sharing -- or "family bed," as it's sometimes called -- do it because they like it. I mean, who knows what a baby really likes? Yes, it may make for easier breast-feeding, but reaching over to a basket by the side of the bed isn't much of a hardship.

And sleeping with your baby only postpones the eventual ugly separation. At what age do you stop sleeping with your kids? Twelve months? Three years? Six? Eleven? I remember one acquaintance saying, "Oh, we're really having a hard time getting Rebecca to sleep in her own room." Rebecca was 5 years old. If she'd been weaned from her parents' bed at one week old they might not have been having those problems.


But would they have "bonded"? Well, bondedness is not the simple, binary thing it's often portrayed as. Forty years ago there was an explosion of studies suggesting that if a mother failed to have skin-to-skin contact with her newborn in its first few days of life, the two would never establish a strong bond.

You can imagine how this made mothers of babies in incubators or mothers whose own rough delivery had them in intensive care for a few days feel. That magic moment was lost! Except, those studies were flawed and all they succeeded in doing is making a lot of mothers feel bad. And they probably gave ammunition to the family bed people.

A book called "Mother Nature" by evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy makes for interesting reading. She demolishes much of the bonding myth while pointing out that it's important for newborns to bond with someone, or some group of someones. (Allomothers, she calls these caregivers.)

She also explains the evolutionary justification for infanticide. A section on the rise of changelings in fairy tales is fascinating. These were babies supposedly switched at birth by fairies or demons. Hrdy argues that these "changelings" were probably infants slowly being starved to death by their mothers, mothers who had a deep-seated evolutionary compunction to do so. (Letting an unhealthy baby die so a healthier older sibling can survive increases the chances your genes will live on.)

John Kattwinkel of the University of Virginia, who chaired an American Academy of Pediatrics panel that recommended against bed-sharing in 2005, told The Post: "There is probably nothing more devastating than finding a dead infant in the morning. We should do everything we can to avoid it."

It would seem to me one place to start is getting the kid his own bed.

By John Kelly  |  January 28, 2009; 9:35 AM ET
 
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Comments

Its dangerous, more babies are dying because of it. What more is there to say? Well there is alot more about my personal discomfort with this whole idea, but why be judgemental?

Posted by: mfromalexva | January 28, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

When my wife and I were doing shower registering a month or two ago, I was shocked by the amount of co-sleeping stuff available at Babies R Us and the like. I'd never even heard of it before she got pregnant.

My desire to have alone time with my wife aside, even if one of us didn't accidentally roll over on the poor little guy, I'd be worried about accidentally elbowing him in the face at 3am.

Posted by: MattinSW | January 28, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Co-sleeping products? If parents want to bond with their babies, the safest way is with a Rocking Chair. The time spent holding your infant, wrapped snuggly in a blanket, and singing softly in the dimly lit room, were some of the most precious times of my life.

Why take a chance. Make it quality, not quantity.

Posted by: Mbyrnepsyd | January 28, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I mean, who knows what a baby really likes?

Well sheesh. It was so complicated. When I put my son in the bassinet, he cried. When I kept him in my bed, he didn't. A real enigma it was.

In the interest of getting SOME sleep, I let him stay in the bed until he was about a year old. Yes, I admit it. Come hunt me down and have the parent police take me away, okay?

I didn't love co-sleeping, but it did the trick. Nor did it doom me to having him in my bed FOREVER. Getting him to sleep on his own at a year actually wasn't very hard. By that point, he was well ready for it.

I'm obviously not one of those "strident" people you're talking about, since I didn't come to co-sleeping with any set philosophy. I don't have any particular opinions about "bonding," either. But not waking up to a dead baby was actually not all that complicated. I just wasn't an idiot about co-sleeping. I didn't keep a pillow or even a blanket in my bed when I slept with the child. I didn't sleep on the couch with him, or shove him between the wall and the mattress.

What this intolerably smarmy post fails to mention (though it is quite obvious in the original article) is that most of these suffocation cases seem to be occurring among poor families. But can we use this to discuss the insanity of getting women back to low-paying, full-time jobs with hardly any maternity leave? Or what happens when people don't have the means to sit on BabyCenter half the day and read up on safe practices? Oh no, we have to use the opportunity to have yet another meaningless "that kind of parent is bad and this kind of parent is good" sermon directed at the upper middle class. Who are, as a group, already obsessed with their parenting anyway.

Posted by: freeid | January 28, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

John,

You buried a couple of stupid comments in an overall decent column:

"I mean, who knows what a baby really likes?"

Oh, I don't know, how about his/her parents? A baby may not be able to articulate his or her desires, but it's hardly rocket science to love and care for a baby. Part of the process is learning one's childs wants and needs and responding to them. It's called parenting.

"And sleeping with your baby only postpones the eventual ugly separation. At what age do you stop sleeping with your kids? Twelve months? Three years? Six? Eleven?"

Why should it be ugly? We did not keep our babies in the bed with us, though I occasionally comforted an upset baby (one of twins) when very young and crashed on the couch. The baby was kept to the outside, so had I accidentally rolled over on him, I would have fallen off the couch.

And, yes, sometimes nowadays (they're 3). Sometimes it's a sick child. Sometimes my wife is going to have to sleep because she was working until early in the morning. If I'm there, they're comforted and I can respond immediately to any early morning fussiness. A couple of nights ago, one of my sons was upset going to bed when his mother left the room and woke up at 3 a.m. with the same problem. Staying with her comforted him immediately. Everyone slept soundly. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Do I plan on sleeping with my teen? No. Pick what is age appropriate (very young is a problem due to risk of suffocation; too old can be creepy). Someone in the middle isn't a problem.

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | January 28, 2009 9:51 PM | Report abuse

I have no problem with the occasional infiltration of the parental bed by children. I remember climbing into my parents' when I had nightmares and I have warm memories of my children doing the same. But I don't agree with the constant or near-constant presence of a baby, infant, toddler or pre-teen. I don't agree with "family bed." It's not the family's bed. It's MOM and DAD'S bed. We like being together here. We love you, but you have your own bed.

As for crying babies, I've never believed that you have to do what a baby tells you to do. A baby will eventually stop crying. Really.

And as for the safeguards mentioned as a way of not squashing your baby: When I'm asleep I can't be responsible for how I roll, twitch or flail.

But I do agree that we as a country need better programs for parents and their offspring, starting with more daycare, closer to where we work.

Posted by: JohnFKelly | January 29, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

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