(That’s real small s science prevailing over whatever the dude in the lab coat is saying today.)
Before digging into this lovely article and the links it provides, we’ll recap the situation:
- All across the planet, across the centuries, mothers have slept with their infant children. Makes it easier to nurse the child, comfort the child, and for mom to get some sleep. It’s about as natural a thing to do as breathing.
- In post Christian but not post Puritan America, this was discovered to be WRONG. Based on a handful of very dubious studies, it was claimed that ‘co-sleeping’ was tantamount to murdering your child, because the child’s chances of dying while asleep at home went from .001% to .0011% – something like that, the point being that the change was tiny, and no allowances were made for trade-offs, such as more tired moms and worse child/mother bonding, which might also have bad effects on the child’s long-term health. America is alone in this rabid anti-family-bed obsession
- The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control nonetheless went all total war on the issue: as many, many parent can attest, every visit to your child’s doctor during the last 25 years or so was all but guaranteed to include stern admonitions about not letting the baby sleep in bed with you, but making sure she had her own bed. Moms and dads doing what moms and dads have done for thousands of generations were being shamed and, frankly, bullied into stopping, in order to conform with what amounts to a puritanical fad.
Back when we had our first baby, we read, among other things, some books by Dr. William Sears on ‘attachment parenting’, which includes encouragement to do the whole ‘family bed’ thing. This lead me to read up on the claims that ‘co-sleeping’ was going to kill our baby. A couple things stood out:
- There was no distinction made between healthy, happily married couples having a healthy baby sleep with them, and, say, sick or alcoholic or drug-addicted parents in chaotic family situations sleeping on the couch with a baby that might have health problems. In other words, the research uncritically treated correlation as causation without apply any rigor to the data. They just added up the raw numbers and, boom – family beds kill babies. Cargo cult science in spades.
- The herd mentality of pediatricians. I suppose you’re less likely to get sued if you give the party line advice. I further suppose that people get into pediatrics not for love of pure science, but to help kids. Even the trivial level of scientific skepticism needed to see the hopeless flaws in the studies was not to be found in any of the pediatricians we had. I suspect the process of becoming a pediatrician in America is a form of selection, and weeds certain types of people out. (This is not to say our pediatricians weren’t wonderful – they were – just that they’re not to be relied upon as interpreters of science.)
So, #1 son was a fussy baby, to put it mildly. I had built a custom rocking cradle for him (It came out nice!) and so we put him in it. Yea, like that was going to work. Within the week, he was sleeping with us – much better, less stressful, more sleep. And so, based on my own educated layman’s ability to judge the validity of ‘studies’, we just smiled and nodded at the whole ‘make the baby sleep by herself!’ mantra chanted at us over the decades.
So it is with some grim satisfaction that I today read that the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control have backtracked: somebody finally noticed that this whole war on basic, natural parenting was based on a total of *4* studies of dubious value, and that, by shaming moms into not sleeping with their babies, they caused a number of – are you sitting down? – unintended consequences:
Specifically, when parents don’t bring babies to bed, they tend to sit up with them and feed them on a sofa or in a chair which carries with it a very high risk of injury or death as babies get stuck in sofa cushions or dropped on the floor by sleepy parents. She also notes that discouraging bed-sharing has also had the inadvertent effect of making extended nursing more difficult which carries with it an increased risk of SIDS and other health problems.
As to the studies themselves:
the AAP’s statement from which it comes is based on just four papers. Two of the studies are misrepresented, and actually show little or no risk of sharing a bed when parents do not smoke, and two of the studies do not collect data on maternal alcohol use, a known and powerful risk factor.
Pretty much what I’ve been saying FOR THE LAST COUPLE DECADES.
Only one more refinement to be added. One of the crazier warnings is that mom or dad may roll over on the baby and crush and smother her! Now, I can only speak from personal experience, but I never came close to rolling over on a baby in the years we spent with a baby sleeping with us. It’s almost like natural selection has imprinted on us an awareness that the survival of our genome depends on the survival of our children – or something. In any event, somehow, even in deep sleep, I knew there was a baby in the bed and to be careful. It was an entire non-issue.
I’ve got to wonder about all the medical and other child-rearing advice we get that tends towards the destruction of the family at its roots: the natural bonds between parents and children. What all this anti-family-bed and, for example, strap them in like astronauts in the car advice does is make parents get used to ignoring the discomfort of their children: instead of physical contact and comfort, the parents learn to ignore the kid’s crying, and the kid learns that the comfort and contact are highly conditional. Where the emotional bonds should be unquestioned, we sow doubt. I just hope the tradeoffs actually make sense, or at least were acknowledged at some point: yes, perhaps a few babies a year might die as a result of mom holding them in the car, but that may be the better path than the temptation towards indifference that not holding them encourages. I don’t know that this is true, but I’d like to see it and similar issues at least discussed.