Alright, I caved. At first I wanted nothing to do with this article from the Daily Fail because let’s face it – it’s the Daily Fail – but because I’m being asked a lot, let’s take it apart, shall we?
Let’s start with the title:
The new parenting fad experts fear could KILL your baby: Mothers are jeopardising their child’s safety by co-sleeping
Um… clearly Ms. Hoyle knows nothing about human history. Co-sleeping is about as new as, oh, humans. And for the record, co-sleeping refers to bedsharing AND room sharing, but as it’s the language you use, I’ll stick with it as well (I admit I’ve done the same myself when dealing with discourse on the topic).
And now for the text…
Suzanne Morris off to sleep at 2am as her tiny two-month-old son George lay beside her. With him snuggled between Suzanne and her husband David, the fledgling family seemed the picture of contentment.
But a couple of hours later Suzanne awoke with a start and realised George was no longer by her side. Her shock had turned to panic by the time she discovered him under the duvet at the bottom of her and David’s marital bed.
‘He’d either wriggled there or we had pushed him down in our sleep,’ says Suzanne. ‘I get a cold sweat when I think about it. George could have been smothered. He was sound asleep and it was just a lucky coincidence I woke up. Who knows what could have happened? He could have died and become a statistic.’
Actually, no Suzanne, it was not a “lucky coincidence” but rather the definition of maternal instinct. My guess is that you realized something was amiss and woke. Now, the question becomes – were you safely co-sleeping? Sounds like no. If your child was under the duvet, that’s already problem number 1. Were you breastfeeding? Had you had anything to drink or any medications? All of these things impair one’s ability to rouse and tend to a child and can make problems more likely.
The statistic to which Suzanne refers is the number of babies who die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) each year. They were given a disturbing new focus recently when researchers revealed that babies who share a bed with their mothers are up to five times more likely to die than those who sleep separately.
SIDS – the sudden and unexplained death of a child under the age of one – kills 300 babies a year in Britain.
It has been long known that premature babies and those with breathing and heart problems are more susceptible, while parents who smoke, take drugs or drink to excess are known to put their baby at risk. But it now transpires that even the most diligent mothers, like Suzanne, are also jeopardising their baby’s safety by co-sleeping.
The comprehensive review – compiled with data from five previous studies and after examining nearly 1,500 cases of SIDS – revealed that an estimated 88 per cent of deaths that occurred while a child slept with their parents would not have happened if the baby had not been bed-sharing.
Ah – the Carpenter piece. There are so many flaws in this bit of “research” it’s hard to name them all, but here are a few of the wonderful responses by researchers to this sensationalized piece of… well, you know:
(1) From right here
You should be able to see that the research isn’t something we should be putting much stock into. The analyses are flawed, the missing data procedures aren’t correct, the data is not recent at all, and several key variables were ignored (e.g., tog value). Not to mention the comparison group was girls only – who already have a decreased risk of SIDS.
‘Deep down, I suppose we knew it was risky,’ says Suzanne, 40. ‘It wasn’t a choice to co-sleep that night. We were just so tired. I was absolutely mortified and still am.’
An adult bed can be a dangerous environment for a baby, as Alison Edwards, a senior lecturer in midwifery at Birmingham City University, explains: ‘Babies have been squashed or wriggled under the duvet and can die from being overheated.’
Yet 50 per cent of all mothers share a bed with their baby at some stage, despite Department of Health guidelines urging them to place an infant in its own cot for the first six months.
Ahhh… so Suzanne’s situation is actually one of the main reasons why we need to stop these ridiculous campaigns against co-sleeping in favour of teaching people the real risks and how to co-sleep SAFELY. It also adds another ‘not safe’ tick to her experience – she was too tired. The fact that at least 50% of women (as this is who actually admitted to it) do it despite warnings tells us (a) that they will continue to do it whether we provide safety information or not, and (b) that there is something that pulls many of us to keep our babies close. It might be feeding, contact, comfort, whatever. It won’t change.
This is, perhaps, due to the popularity of trendy ‘attachment parenting’, as espoused by psychologists such as Penelope Leach and celebrity mothers from Angelina Jolie to Heidi Klum. It encourages mothers to feed their babies on demand and never let them out of their sight.
Really? We’re going to blame attachment parenting and not biology? Feeding babies on demand is actually recommended and encouraged by doctors, researchers, lactation consultants, etc. As for never letting your baby out of your sight? Um, does this mean working parents can’t be attached? I call bullshit.
The ‘breastapo’ also has a case to answer: pressure on women to breastfeed has led to a huge rise in co-sleeping, with 80 per cent of mothers succumbing to it.
Because breast milk is easier to digest than formula, babies grow hungrier faster and need to be fed more often than their bottle-fed peers. Many mothers feel the only way they can get any sleep at all is to keep their child by their side.
Suzanne, an event manager, who lives with David, 42, a chartered surveyor, and George, now seven, and Ruby, four, in Hove, East Sussex, admits that’s what happened to her.
‘I was desperate to breastfeed and was advised by my parenting class to keep George on my breast non-stop to get feeding established,’ she says.
‘But he never got enough milk. I was feeding every two hours. I would never have slept.’
First, are you freaking kidding me??? “Breastapo”? You’re going to compare people who are working to allow women to breastfeed and remove barriers and provide education with those who murdered and tortured millions of people? Wow. And women “succumbing”? I’m not sure if you’re suggesting 80% of women are co-sleeping or breastfeeding – and yet the number is still much higher for both in some other cultures – but regardless, either they’re breastfeeding (which is good for them if they want to do it and are finding themselves able without barriers) or co-sleeping (which they probably do to make breastfeeding easier or simply to connect with their child, again, good for them). They’re being NORMAL. And wait, didn’t you say 50% co-sleep earlier? Now I’m think you’re just making up numbers…
Regardless, THIS is why people co-sleep. And why we’ve done it for human history. It does facilitate breastfeeding and when you have a child who, quite normally, feeds every two hours, co-sleeping allows families to get some rest. When done safely. Clearly, though, we’re entering the anti-breastfeeding realm of Ms. Hoyle’s asinine article. Let’s ignore the reasons why people are trying to increase breastfeeding rates (like the increased risk of various diseases for mom and baby) in favour of proposing families switch to the bottle to get more sleep. So now we’re at anti-co-sleeping and anti-breastfeeding… curious what else she can manage to pull out.
Yet plenty of professional bodies still promote its benefits.
Rosemary Dodds, senior policy advisor at the National Childbirth Trust, insists the organisation does not advise new parents on whether to sleep with their baby, but adds: ‘We are aware of the advantages of bed sharing for a baby in terms of reassurance and establishing breastfeeding.
‘For parents it works very well because they get more sleep. Historically and culturally babies have slept close to their parents.’
Certainly, until the advent of the cot in the 19th century, co-sleeping in Western society was de rigueur.
Well, yes it was. And when cots were invented we suddenly had ‘cot death’, now known as SIDS.
Parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of BabyCalm, insists that co-sleeping poses no added risk if planned properly.
‘It is the most common way of sleeping in Japan and they have the lowest SIDS rate in the world,’ she says, claiming that mothers instinctively form a protective ‘frame’ around their baby with their body.
But Ockwell-Smith admits there are caveats. Babies should always be put in sleeping bags above, never under, parents’ duvets.
They should sleep on their mother’s side of the bed, as research shows fathers are less attuned to their child’s movements and more likely to roll on top of them.
And formula-fed babies – without the immunity-boosting properties of breast milk – should not co-sleep at all as studies have shown them to be at a higher risk of SIDS in the first place.
Professor Helen Ball, who runs the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab at Durham University, says she has also discovered that breastfeeding mothers instinctively position their babies more safely in their bed than those who have never breastfed.
‘Mothers who have only bottle fed place their baby up near their face, rather than at their chest, so they are on the pillow and at risk of suffocation,’ she says.
Some co-sleep for the feeling of closeness as much as to facilitate breastfeeding.
‘The increased skin-on-skin contact releases a hormone called oxytocin that promotes bonding,’ says Ockwell-Smith.
While some people would be happy with the inclusion of this information at all, it pisses me off still because it’s now been put after these dire warnings and stories of near-death. How on earth are people supposed to take this information in seriously when the article starts as it does? All of this is true and it’s not coming from a mother who slept unsafely or a journalist looking for a sensational article, but from people in the field. Helen Ball researches breastfeeding and co-sleeping. She knows exactly what she’s talking about. Sarah Ockwell-Smith has worked with parents for years and is consistently keeping herself up-to-date with research (I know because I’ve written with her). But clearly Ms. Hoyle knows that if you get parents scared enough at first, nothing else will really be absorbed. She’s primed her readers to think negatively about co-sleeping and this information, as accurate as it is, probably won’t be heeded.
Kate Kirrane, 40, a company director from London, co-slept with her daughter Iyla, now three, after her birth in September 2009 until her son Isaac, now 18 months, was born in February last year. Now he still sleeps with Mum if teething or fretful.
‘It feels unnatural not to,’ says Kate. ‘He wants to be close to me – why would I deprive him of that?’
She says health visitors and midwives were already aware of the dangers at the time she gave birth.
‘It was rammed down my throat I shouldn’t do it but I have always been mindful of safety and my natural instinct won over,’ she says. ‘It is wrong that mothers are made to feel guilty.’
See? One section later and we’re back to “the dangers” and others being aware. Because never has policy been based on fear instead of actual data (note sarcasm). And now this mother is made to seem like you have to be rebelling to do something like co-sleeping, even if it is, as she says, following your natural instincts.
And what of the husbands in this arrangement? Co-sleeping inevitably creates an added barrier to spousal relations which are often already strained by a newborn.
Kate admits that there were times when her husband Michael, 43, a company manager, ‘put his foot down’.
‘But at the end of the day it’s not him getting up in the night, is it?’
She claims co-sleeping has had little impact on their romantic life, however. ‘I sleep better this way so I’m happier, which means I’m a better mother and wife.’
Oh dear… the relationship issue. I suppose it would have been silly not to expect this to rear its ugly head. At this point all I have to say is that I really like this Kate woman. Frankly, I’d love to go sit and have a glass of wine with her. But really, if you can’t be creative and make your relationship work, you have bigger problems than a baby in your bed.
But maternity nurse Rachel Waddilove, author of Sleep Solutions, is adamant co-sleeping has a ruinous effect on a relationship: ‘Your partner might enjoy it for the first few days but he will start to feel left out if you have a little person with you 24 hours a day. There is never time to be a couple.’
Lovely, the wonderful sleep trainer Rachel – I wrote this piece about another interview she did in the not too distant past. We know she’s a piece of work already. But let’s think about this. A young baby is supposed to be with parents 24 hours a day. That’s just biology. Older babies will often go down before their parents do, leaving time for parents to “be a couple”. This mindset only works if you treat attachment parenting as a list of things to follow and then ignore one of them – balance. (You can read more of that idea here).
Colette Burgess couldn’t agree more. She and her husband Dave, a welder, agreed long before their son Ben was born in July 2009 and daughter Chloe came along two years later that there was no place in their family for co-sleeping.
‘I adore my children but don’t want to spend every waking moment with them,’ she says. ‘Our bedroom is the only place we can get away. There is barely enough room for two of us without a baby in the middle.’
Ben and Chloe both slept in a cot at the bottom of the bed before moving into their own rooms at four and eight months respectively.
Colette, 33, breastfed each for eight months and says that the safety implications of co-sleeping worried her almost as much as the invasion of her marital privacy.
‘I’d go downstairs to feed so I didn’t risk falling asleep on our bed,’ she says. ‘I was paranoid about suffocating them and no matter how tired I was I’d never feed lying down.’
Look – those of us who say co-sleeping can work aren’t saying it works for every family. For some, it’s not the best solution for the entire family. In this case, we definitely need to promote room-sharing for the first six to eight months, simply because sleeping in a separate room increases a baby’s risk of SIDS (yes, that’s correct, and remember SIDS used to be known as cot death). This woman didn’t want to be with her kids all the time. I don’t really understand, but I don’t need to because it’s not my family. Co-sleeping is a personal choice that each family needs to make based on their own circumstances.
But now I need to bring up another point. This woman went downstairs to feed so she didn’t risk falling asleep on her bed. Okay. But what of the risk of falling asleep in the chair? Or on the sofa? These are real risks and the associated risk of suffocating your infant in these scenarios are exponentially higher compared to co-sleeping in a bed. This is exactly the type of concern many of us have when vilifying co-sleeping instead of providing real, honest information so parents can not only make informed decisions about co-sleeping, but they can also make sure their bed is as safe as can be if they happen to fall asleep breastfeeding.
Colette, a primary school teacher from Manchester, was brought up by her own parents never to enter their room and is now training Ben and Chloe to do the same. The upshot is that neither wakes in the night, she adds.
‘I have friends who have co-slept and their children are now six and still getting into their bed. At what point do you draw the line and say they need to sleep on their own?’
Okay, I have no desire to go for a drink with Colette. Frankly, why would you want your room off-limits? What if your child has a nightmare? And how on earth does she know if they wake or not? What she means is that if they wake, her kids don’t bother her. I certainly hope she’s willing to be as equally respectful of her children’s wishes when they’re teenagers not to enter their rooms. Well, to each her own, I suppose. I feel badly for the children, but it’s their family.
Let’s look at her question though: When do kids need to sleep on their own? Well, many would say when they are ready. After all, sleep is supposed to be social. Why does Colette feel the need to have that level of closeness and touch with her husband? Because sleeping with someone provides a bond that can increase our feelings of love and care for the other individual. Our children want that. They want to be close to others. We are biologically hardwired to want to feel safe at night and, evolutionarily, that means sleeping with other people. Protection in numbers so to speak. Our babies don’t know that they are in a modern world and safe when alone; and the lack of a fully developed prefrontal cortex means it’s hard from them to fully comprehend it if you explain it to them.
It is a controversial question. But based on the latest scientific findings, it seems that sooner would be infinitely safer than later.
Oh dear. Well, it is a controversial question and that’s about the only grain of truth in this closing. Let’s first have a reminder that the “latest scientific findings” are under such attack for valid reasons. The findings don’t tell us much of anything based on what was done. But let’s say people feel safest not sharing a bed with a newborn – even in these “latest scientific findings”, the risk of SIDS was increased only for the first 8 weeks. After this, there is no safety problem. Some families actually transition to co-sleeping after the first 2-3 months and continue to bedshare for years; therefore your link between later co-sleeping and early co-sleeping is invalid and the closing asinine.
The issue, however, is safety. And I’m not sure there’s ever been a time in history when not providing information on how to do something safely that people do anyway has ever led to good outcomes. It’s ridiculous. When the current research shows that co-sleeping can be done safely, then we need to work to make sure families know how to do it safely should they want to do it. But also pointing out that many families end up co-sleeping without even meaning to and they should always make sure that the bed is safe.
Inflammatory and ignorant articles such as this never help. All they do is serve to make parents afraid. No wonder parents so often feel misled by the media when it comes to research… because that is exactly what you do. For shame.
If you would like to read how to co-sleep safely, we have a pamphlet here you can download and print for free. You can find it here.
[Image Credit: Unknown]