Let Sleeping Babies Lie
Posted by Joseph Moore on October 16, 2013
This is primarily about junk science and only secondarily about child rearing. Always happy to argue about either one, though.
21 years ago, when our first was born, read up on the issue of the family bed, and discovered a rat’s nest of bad science, that, sadly, has shown little improvement to this day. This article gets huge points for including a critic (even if they tuck him in the last paragraph, waaaay down past where USA Today readers are likely to read).
An accompanying editorial in the journal by pediatrician Abraham Bergman of Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, says that the “evidence linking bed sharing per se to the increased risk for infant death is lacking.” Bergman suggests that “equal time” in physician-parent counseling “should be given to the benefits of bed sharing,” such as “more sleep for the parent” and “easier breastfeeding when the infant is nearby.”
The real issue in all the studies I’ve ever seen is that there are no controls at all – they simply add up death statistics from SIDS – itself a rather poorly understood and broadly defined cause of death – and other infant deaths and draw broad conclusions that aren’t really in the data, and then make specific recommendations way out in front of the scientific headlights. Specifically:
- the general numbers don’t tell you anything about the physical and mental health of the parents or the baby, or the parents’ sobriety and stability. The obvious question that very nearly answers itself: does it make a difference in the incidence of infant death if the baby is healthy and sleeps with a happy, healthy, sober married couple, versus an unhealthy baby sleeping with an unhappy, unhealthy, drunk or stoned couple just shacking up for the time being?
- how about the kind of bed? Does it make a difference if the baby sleeps with Mom and Dad in a king sized bed with a light blankets, versus on the couch with a pile of pillows? Or a twin bed in a freezing room with huge piles of blankets?
- what is the total risk, here, anyway? If we are talking a tiny risk (and we are) then even a 100% increase in risk - your baby’s chance of dying of SIDS is TWICE as much! – it is STILL a tiny risk. Sort of like my risk of being eaten by sharks is massively increased if I, you know, swim in the ocean – and yet, it is still so tiny as to be ignored by any reasonable, non-bleeding person taking a trip to the beach.
From this gross oversimplification and wanton disregard for proper scientific protocol, Science! concludes that it is bad for babies to sleep with their parents? All parents under all conditions? Hey, are you anti-science or something? Get that baby out of your bed!
The real question that needs to be answered: Is there any increased risk to my healthy, happy baby if she sleeps in a nice big bed with her happy, healthy, married parents? If so, is this increased risk significant? If it is significant, does it outweigh the obvious benefits? If science doesn’t have the specific answers to this specific case, science needs to refrain from making any recommendations.
So, we went ahead and let our babies sleep with us, for the reasons Dr. Bergman mentions above, as well as the enhanced bonding you get. It was a great experience all around. One of the first things you find out is that, as a healthy adult in love with your baby, there is no chance you’d roll over on them – the baby’s presence nearby triggers a greatly enhanced awareness of them. Awake or asleep, you just know they are there, a result you could pretty much predict from natural selection for a species with comparatively few and high-value offspring.
And, yes, you do get more sleep when you’re not jumping up to feed the baby all the time. Finally, the insane – INSANE – idea that you will spoil a baby by showing it too much affection, that you need to let her cry herself out in order to, I dunno, toughen up a 1 month old for her future life in a cubicle someplace is, EVIL. To listen to your own infant child cry and not respond as ever fiber of your being wants you to is torture intended to deaden you and your child’s humanity. Not to put too fine a point on it.
Yet, gullible, well-schooled people are strongly inclined to listen to the doctor even when what he says makes no sense. They will be intimidated – hey, it’s a doctor telling them this! Then, because of the trauma often involved in actually carrying out the baby-sleeps-on-her-back-in-the-cradle-ONLY dictum, and that it’s not only OK, but a positive good to let them cry it out, parents will defend it with vigor, as to acknowledge that they are wrong means they have done ill to their baby and are Bad Parents, which is an intolerable thought to be fought off at all costs.
If doctors are going to insist on these sorts of gross lifestyle changes, they should be prepared to give reasons that stand up to informed inspection. Otherwise, going with the wisdom of the ages – virtually every human baby ever born slept with its mother (at least) across all history and cultures except our own – is the reasonable thing to do.
Mostly, this whole shared bed causes SIDS thing is a monumental piece of junk science used to scare parents at their most vulnerable point – so I hate it.