Let Sleeping Babies Lie

Baby
This one somehow survived sleeping next to Momma and Daddy. Oh, the Humanity!

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.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “Let Sleeping Babies Lie”

  1. Yeah, it hits close to home, but I have a hard time separating it from everything else they get wrong.

    My wife and I were pretty much on the same page as you. I dunno where she got her info, but her thought on the matter was that the SIDS risk was virtually only for formula fed babies. You know, a drunk baby, basically working overtime to extract nutrients from re-hydrolized soy-pulp, wouldn’t necessarily be *able* to turn his head if his nose got blocked, whereas the same baby, breastfed, buried under a pile of blankets, would just turn over. I’m exaggerating, of course.

    Anyway, only our first-born even *wanted* to be in the bed with us.

    1. Getting good data on child safety is almost as hard as getting good data on schools. Part of it has to do, I think, with who is paying for the studies.

      The key thing is to listen to your kid and listen to your instincts. If the kid falls asleep in your arms and stays asleep when you set them down in the crib – LET ‘EM SLEEP. Our first two rarely would, and so spent a lot of time in our bed. #3 and #4 were much more accommodating, The Caboose wanted to sleep with us a lot as a toddler more so than a baby – cool, we got a California King bed, so we could usually manage it.

      The point is, we, like you, weren’t wedded to some theory that made us Bad Parents anytime we went with the flow contrary to theory, and believed healthy human instincts are both honed by nature and a gift from God, so use them, already!

      And thanks for reading, I appreciate it.

      1. Being open and thoughtful is well and good, but what to do with the feelings of shame when the pediatrician asks, “Is she sleeping alone, and on her back?” with a coy smile? : )

        You’re very welcome!

  2. Hi DmL, Sorry to insert, but if they ask you that question (with a coy smile) you tell them that the SIDS information on sleeping with parents is junk science. Epidemiological studies from other countries where there is only one bed for a family do not show an increase in SIDS. If they get snotty, refer them to the late Dr. Mendelsohn’s books. He’s a teaching pediatrician who wrote, among many [“Mal(e)practice”, “Confessions of a Medical Heretic”, etc.], “How to Raise a Healthy Child; In Spite of Your Doctor”.

    Each of my 3 children slept with the wife and I. Very convenient for breast feeding, etc. We put them on an orthopedic pillow between us. It has been theorized by lower SIDS rates in countries with family sleeping arrangements, that the regular breathing of an adult near a baby may help prevent SIDS.

    1. Thanks for your reply. I wasn’t speaking so much for myself– we found a pediatrician who was open to actually discussing such things. However, I’ve known young parents to have the curse of our perspicacity without the luxury of our forthrightness.

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