Between the Headlines: Cosleeping is Not to Blame

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.


4 Responses to “Between the Headlines: Cosleeping is Not to Blame”

  1. 1 Illyeanna October 14, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Some times I tire of the slanted reports and outright attacks against the pro-attachment and pro-bonding choices I and others have made.

    Each parent has to figure out what works for their children and their family and I appreciate the time you invest in trying to present a more accurate and helpful look at the sensationalized reports.

    My friends have mostly made very different choices although I count a few friends who co-sleep, breastfeed and wear their babies among my community.

    I had planned a home birth and had to have an emergency C-section for an unusual condition called oligohydramnios. When I was finally at home with my precious daughter, I didn’t want to let her out of my hands much less put her in a separate bed or room. I was discharged on a typical amount of pain relievers for the surgery that brought her into my world. I didn’t feel that, initially, it was safe for her to sleep in a soft bed with me on meds. We found a lovely solution for my daughter’s safety and our best bonding interests. A small device called a Snuggle Sleeper gave her a firm surface to sleep on, kept me from rolling onto her accidentally and kept her near me where she could smell me and touch me. It even had a little night light I could easily flip on to see her sleeping without disturbing her.

    Today my child is 4, still co-sleeps with me or other family/friends. Recently she mentioned that soon she would like to start sleeping on her own or have me into her big girl bed (a full size) or have herself over to “visit” me in my king size bed. She is confident, independent, easily soothed and not prone to many temper tantrums. She stands out in a crowd of children her age as at ease with herself and the world around her. I believe my determination to both keep her safe and help us bond is a huge part of why she is so healthy and happy.

    • 2 mamajade October 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm

      Isn’t it funny, how people’s fears that cosleeping/breastfeeding/whathaveyou will lead to completely dependent children are rarely realized? How many times do we hear that we are coddling our children, that they will never sleep in their own bed, that they will never be able to do anything for themselves?

      Congratulations on finding a way to bond with your daughter that worked for you.

      And thank you for the nice comment. 🙂

  2. 3 Suzanne October 14, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Amen! The worst part of these news reports is their repeated misuse of the word “co-sleeping” when they mean “bed-sharing” or even “napping on the couch with a baby”. Like you and I both said before, safe co-sleeping and/or bed-sharing is possible but the NUMBER ONE RULE has always been never ever sleep with your baby when you’re under the influence. OF ANYTHING.

  3. 4 mamajade October 15, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Suzanne–I know, it drives me nuts. Sleeping on the couch with baby is NOT cosleeping(/bedsharing).

    I love the way they make it sound like you’re committing this unspeakable act by sharing your bed with your baby. I want to yell at them, quit wasting your time, talk about the real issue: sleeping safely.

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