“Bad science sets out to make a point, looks neither to the left nor to the right but only straight ahead for evidence that supports the point it sets out to make. When it finds evidence it likes, it gathers it tenderly and subjects it to little or no testing.” – Kurt Vonnegut
I have a confession to make…one that I’m tired of thinking of as a confession at all. I sleep with my baby. Our mattress is on the floor, and my husband and I share a bed with our eight-month-old son. It has been something we don’t mention, hedge around, or in some cases lie about. It is considered risky, wrong, indefensible by most of the people we know – family, friends, and those who don’t even know us but judge us all the same.
I’m through with hiding, though. We’re doing nothing wrong, and I won’t allow the fears and judgement of others to make me feel like I have to sneak around with my parenting choices. While I respect the concerns of those who don’t agree, I ask that they respect my decision as I respect theirs: I will sleep with my baby, you will not. I don’t call you to tell you the SIDS statistics that should make you terrified of the crib, so don’t tell me I’m going to roll over onto my baby and suffocate him – never mind that I’m so aware of him that when he shifts his legs I rouse enough to check on him. Never mind that I’m aware of him in the same way that you’re aware of the edge of your bed, and that I’m as likely to roll on him as you are to roll off the bed and down the stairs without noticing.
I’m a good mother – maybe even a great mother, but that will be seen as he grows into his own person. I love my child. I refuse to let anyone imply that I’m not considerate of the health and safety of my child. His life is my life, now, and his well being is my principle consideration in all decisions.
Before I go into defending our choice with science, I’ll tell you more personally. Why do we do it? Because it feels right. Because it makes life easier. Because I don’t believe that my son is safer down the hall and in another room. Because when I roll over at night and put my arm around him, only to discover that Michael has his arm around him too, I melt. Because we’re breastfeeding and I barely have to wake up to feed him in the middle of the night. Because he smells wonderful. Because I work during the day, and I’m desperate for any time I get to be close to him, even if only in sleep. Because I hear his every breath and know when something’s wrong. Because he sleeps better, for longer periods, when he sleeps with us. Because it feels right.
Since the beginning, it was the right thing for us. We came home from the hospital and optimistically put him in the “CoSleeper.” He didn’t sleep. Those first few nights, I was so terrified of sleeping with him (thanks to the campaign against sleeping with your baby) I wouldn’t hold him. Michael eventually tucked him into his sweatshirt, and the two of them slept for five hour stretches, waking me when Matthias needed to eat.
What the campaigns don’t highlight – what is apparently too complicating for them to acknowledge – is that cosleeping deaths happen in very specific circumstances, and that yes, you CAN safely cosleep. I won’t go into the circumstances of safe cosleeping – there are untold numbers of resources on the subject. I will say this: much as you arrange your crib for the safety of your baby (no plush toys, no blankets that can cover her face, no corners and cracks to wedge herself into, etc), you have to arrange a family bed for the safety of your family.
There is a difference between a considered and conscious choice to sleep with your child, and a careless lack of choice that can be more risky. That said, we’ve never taken the blanket off of our bed and we both still use pillows. We didn’t use pillows until Matthias was just over six months old and could not only sit up and roll over on his own, but was strong enough to push things away from his face. As I’ve said before, “we don’t do anything that anyone thinks we should, but we do everything just right.” (And yes, we do have an exit strategy.)
I’d like now to excerpt a piece by Dr. James McKenna (of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory of Notre Dame and author of Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parents Guide to Cosleeping):
“In her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou writes about how her mother encouraged her to bring her infant son into her bed. When Maya realizes she hasn’t crushed her son, as she had feared she would, she hears her mother whisper, ‘See, you don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.’
A recent report from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) would have us believe that Maya’s mother, as well as hundreds of thousands of other mothers and fathers, are wrong: that they somehow are not ‘doing the right thing.’ In truth, the CPSC’s sweeping recommendation – that all infants regardless of circumstances should sleep in cribs – was made ‘without thinking’ on the basis of data so badly flawed that the renowned SIDS researcher Abraham Bergman calls it a classic example of ‘garbage in, and garbage out.’
At the core of the CPSC study is the finding that 121 children died from 1990 to 1997 when a bed sharing adult rolled over and suffocated them. What is missing from the study, however, are crucial details of the actual bed sharing circumstances, including the infant’s sleep position and whether the adult smoked, ingested drugs, suffered from depression, was sober, or was even aware that the baby was present in bed. All of these factors and others significantly increase the chances of an ‘overlay’ or SIDS, quite independently of the use of the adult bed.
Of further concern, the study reports on the number of infants said to have died in adult beds but does not provide information on the total number who sleep in such arrangements and live. Thus, the relative risk is unknown. A third flaw is the study’s dependence on what even the authors agree is the anecdotal nature of information they gathered from death certificates. Because death investigations and certification practices vary widely in the US, regional difference exist in how a term such as ‘overlying’ is defined, for example. In addition, Bergman has observed that economic factors can come into play: deaths of infants with identical pathologic findings are classified as overlying or suffocation if the child is from a family that is poor or from a minority, but is considered SIDS or interstitial pneumonia if the child is from a family that is white or middle class.
Should parents be counseled to take precautions to minimize catastrophic accidents in the bed sharing environment? Absolutely. And, of course, parents should take similar precautions when they place their infants in cribs, where an average of 50 children die by strangulation or suffocation each year. But in making their Draconian recommendation against bed sharing, CPSC officials failed to appreciate that the choice of sleeping arrangements reflects parents’ rights and need to take care of an infant or child during the night in a way that they find most fulfilling. Such arrangements are about defining and building social relationships and often depend on whether the parents choose to feed their child with breast or bottle and what they want their infants to know about them and to experience emotionally. Bed sharing reflects how parents best believe they can protect their infants and show them affection, through nurturing gestures – spontaneous touches, caresses, and loving whispers – that my colleagues and I have had the privilege to document using infrared video cameras.
Our research has also shown that the commission is simply wrong to imply that sleeping mothers and fathers are unresponsive to the sounds, touches, cries, and needs of the children in their beds. Consistent with the views of Maya’s mother, our studies show emphatically that even in the deepest stages of sleep, mothers respond within seconds to a strange noise, sudden movement, grunt, or cough of a co-sleeping child. Research also shows that bed sharing and breastfeeding mutually reinforce each other, since they are an integrated, time-tested biologic system that maximizes – not threatens – human infant survival as well as maternal health. The closer babies sleep to their mothers, the more they breastfeed. Interestingly, the data also show that both mother and infant actually sleep more when they sleep together than when they sleep in different rooms. Moreover, in self-appraisals, mothers who routinely bed share rate the quality of their sleep as high as, if not higher than, mothers who routinely sleep apart from their infants. And, as mothers know, bed sharing makes breastfeeding easier and more successful for both the mother and child.
The controversy about co-sleeping may have a positive side because it has educated parents about the benefits of bed sharing and makes them aware of choices they didn’t know were theirs to make. Indeed, perhaps someday we will join the rest of the world and regard infant-parent bed sharing as an appropriate and potentially rewarding choice, when practiced safely. Then scientists and parents alike will regard co-sleeping parents not as ‘products’ to be managed by the CPSC, but as loving nighttime protectors of their children.”
As parents, we make hundreds of thousands of choices for our children. We as a society need to start assuming that most of those choices come from love, not from neglect. Until he’s old enough, you’re responsible for your child’s sleeping arrangements, diet, clothing, hair, hygiene, toys, caregivers, transportation, religious or ethical upbringing, etc. I’m a breastfeeding, bed sharing, vegetarian mother who has a breastfeeding, bed sharing, vegetarian son. My husband is a bed sharing, vegetarian man who would breastfeed if only he had the equipment.
And we’re proud of it.