Sunday, September 07, 2008

Family Bed: Babies aren't sleeping with the enemy

He handed me the bib.

It read: “Babies Sleep Safest Alone.”

I took it, thanked him, and used the blue-fringed bit of cloth to clean the toilet.

“Babies sleep safest with mommies who wake up to their needs,” I muttered to myself, knowing full and well that some mommies and daddies are able to do their best jobs as parents when their infants are crying it out down the hall.

I don’t judge. How could I? They know themselves better than I do. They know their kids better than I do, too. By the same token, however, I think parents who sleep with their kids in a family bed — who have made the informed decision to do so — are not endangering the lives of their kids.

My vantage point in this belief comes from being on both sides of the debate. Our first baby thrashed and squawked until she was put down in her own crib next to our bed. She was still in our room, and I would wake up at the slightest sound to check on her in the night. She moved to her own room at around a year, and we all started sleeping through the night again. The doctor assured us, if she needed us we'd know.

The second baby wanted to be held and cuddled and soothed. Perhaps it was the circumstance of a rough recovery from his birth and my inability to get up and down for night feedings that made him accustomed to my constant presence. For the most part he slept soundly in the crook of my arm or on my chest where I could hear him breathe.

I can't report whether either of my kids' sleep patterns are good or bad or normal or abnormal; all I can say SHE still wakes up some nights and finds her way into our room, and HE is he is a BABY. He sleeps like a baby. But he won't be a baby forever.

So ... the long and short of it is this: I've become fond of co-sleeping. I think when done correctly, it can be rewarding. I think parents should consider it one option of many, and decide for themselves which works best for them.

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t agree. It has come out solidly against co-sleeping for reasons of safety. Joining it in its efforts are the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission and – not so surprisingly – the Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association (the association for people who make cribs).

While acknowledging that co-sleeping is widespread in many cultures, the AAP notes that “what’s often overlooked is that in countries where co-sleeping is routinely practiced, families almost never sleep in beds with soft mattresses and bulky covers. A baby may be less likely to smother when the family sleeps on a floor mat with only a light coverlet.”

However what the AAP overlooks seems mind boggling.

It seems as best as I can tell from reading, the reasoning all hinges on a three-year study in which 180 children (in an age range containing 12 million) died in bed with their parents or siblings. It makes no mention of the circumstances surrounding the deaths: Who was the adult? Mother? Father? Babysitter? Were they obese? Were they intoxicated? Taking medication that causes them to sleep more deeply than normal? Moreover, it doesn’t compare information from the same time frame that shows thousands of children died in cribs.
According to one report, more infants die each year in house fires (many of whom might have been saved if their parents could have reached them) than died in adult beds for all three years of the study.

I suppose it’s just an imperfect world. There are certainly some people who shouldn’t co-sleep. Still, somehow, we'd rather put our overwhelming trust behind manufacturers to keep us safe.

The question I really don't understand is why? Why do we look at the family bed deaths of 180 babies and shake our heads and mount campaigns while thousands die, alone, in cribs and not drawn the conclusion that every sleep situation can be dangerous?

It shouldn't be lost on us that it is the AMERICAN Academy of Pediatrics is in America where we have real issues with societal norms and differences. Nor that the AAP's precautions about sleeping arrangements go beyond the immediate safety concerns into the more social ones as to why it believes parents are co-sleeping in the first place: It suggests that parents who can’t afford to purchase a safe crib should be directed to financial aid; if the parent is sleeping with the child to “offset loneliness” it suggests counseling. It even goes as far to recommend that babies can be buffers when the marriage is troubled, and again recommends counseling.

All of these things make sense when looking at both hard data and anecdotal evidence, especially if you infer that their target audience is the poor, the illiterate or the potentially drug addicted.

But the truth -- especially about safety and sleep -- can't be gotten to in four words.

The real public service is to explain how to be safer in whatever choices we make.

The only problem seems to be that the information won’t easily fit on a bib.

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