Yesterday, a case-control study looking at SIDS risk factors was published on BMJ. Since then, news stories have sprang up across the US with headlines like “WARNING: Co-sleeping With Your Infant Can Kill Them” and “Over Half of Cot Deaths Linked to Cosleeping.” These headlines are meant to grab your attention–and scare the living fire out of you. (They worked, didn’t they?) However, once you take a closer look, you’ll see that these news articles not only are misrepresenting the findings (big shock), they’re kind of missing the point. (It’s also worthy to note that apparently, the folks in the UK did not have that problem.)
The four-year study (“Hazardous cosleeping environments and risk factors amenable to change: case-control study of SIDS in south west England”) was done by a group of researchers at the University of Bristol. They took 80 cases of infants who died of SIDS and compared that to 82 high risk infants and a control group of 87 randomly selected infants. The purpose of the study was to see if socioeconomic status was linked to the rate of SIDS deaths and whether the factors in SIDS deaths had changed over time.
Of the 80 SIDS infants, 54% of them had died while cosleeping. (This right here is the statistic that all the news headlines are grabbing.) Many of them were cosleeping on a sofa. There was also an incredibly high amount of drug and alcohol use (31% as opposed to only 3% in the control groups). Sixty percent of the mothers in the SIDS group smoked. One fifth of the SIDS infants were sleeping with pillows when they died. A quarter (26%) were born prematurely, another quarter in poor health (28%). That’s a lot of numbers to throw at you, so what does it mean?
It means that there were several risk factors going on with the SIDS cases they studied. As the researchers said, the high percentage of SIDS deaths while cosleeping could be “explained by a significant multivariable interaction between cosleeping and recent parental use of alcohol or drugs” and other risk factors. Also, they mentioned that the low number of cases could be effecting their findings, and that should be taken into consideration when you’re trying to sort through the numbers. It was never the intention of the researchers to cause a panic over cosleeping in general. They recommended greater education on safe cosleeping practices, not the elimination of cosleeping altogether. In their conclusion, they said:
Many of the SIDS infants had coslept in a hazardous environment. The major influences on risk…are amenable to change and specific advice needs to be given, particularly on use of alcohol or drugs before cosleeping and cosleeping on a sofa.
And yet… we have news articles stating that “Researchers warn against sleeping with your baby” (hmm, not exactly) and “Co-sleeping is the Key Culprit in Sudden Infant Deaths” (if you’re drunk, high, and sleeping on a couch). As I’ve said before, why don’t we have headlines warning about the dangers of crib sleeping every time a baby dies in their crib? After every safety recall, why don’t we have headlines like “Cribs: Safe Haven or Dangerous Contraption” or “Your Baby’s Crib Could be a Death Trap”? In this case, I’d just like to see something a little more accurate. How about “Ignorance Key Culprit in Sudden Infant Deaths”?
I have a serious problem with being lumped in with cases like Shianna Sexton in Wales. Seven month old Shianna died while cosleeping with her incredibly intoxicated mother, Ann-Maria Elsbury. Her grandmother found her with a blanket over her head, and there seems to be some question as to whether Ann-Maria actually slept on top of the infant or not. They were sleeping in a single bed. Ann-Maria was about four times over the drunk driving limit when she took Shianna to bed, and had been smoking not only cigarettes but pot as well. In the article, Ann-Maria said “I know they say don’t put them in your bed but I always have.” (Did anyone tell her not to smoke around her children, or do drugs, or care for her children while incredibly intoxicated?) It was also said that there was a need to “point out to mothers in robust terms that sleeping with their children was dangerous.”
In this case, and so many others that I read about, sharing a bed was just one factor in many that led a baby’s death. It is horrible, heartbreaking, and could have been prevented–but to compare a situation like that to the families who choose to cosleep in a safe, healthy manner is kind of ridiculous and a little insulting. I am not stoned out of my mind when I take my baby to bed. I make sure my bed is a safe environment for the both of us before going to sleep. I cosleep responsibly, and so do many other families. Pointing to case like Ann-Maria’s and telling me, “See, don’t cosleep with your baby, it’s unsafe!” is like pointing to the woman who left her baby in the car overnight and saying, “Don’t put your baby in the car, it’s dangerous!”
We need to do everything we can to prevent these deaths. There needs to be more education about safe sleeping practices (wherever your baby happens to sleep) and ways to reduce the risk of SIDS. But be sure to take a closer look before you condemn cosleeping altogether.