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November 16, 2011
Shocking Ads Depict Babies Who Sleep With Parents As Dangerous As Sleeping With Knives

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS), has launched a shocking misinformation campaign to advise all fathers and mothers that they need not listen to their parental instincts when it comes to sleeping with their babies. Instead, these instincts should be ignored and replaced with illogical, unproven and unscientific claims regarding sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and that co-sleeping "can be just as dangerous" for your infant as them sleeping with knives.

The posters (below) are of babies lying in a bed next to a large knife. In one, the baby is white; in the other, the baby is black. "YOUR BABY SLEEPING NEXT TO YOU CAN BE JUST AS DANGEROUS," the copy blares. How convenient that both babies are also in heavily blanketed beds which is, of course, how every co-sleeping arrangement exists right? Unlikely.

According to the health department's website, SIDS results from "unsafe sleep," and a form of "unsafe sleep" is bed-sharing with parents.

"If the ads make some people uncomfortable, I guarantee it's a lot less uncomfortable than having another baby die from co-sleeping," a cause of death that is "so preventable," he added.

Really? So perhaps over 70% of the world has it wrong and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has it right. Or perhaps the MJS is not operating on the particularly sane side of logic, because if the cause of SIDS was indeed bed-sharing, then a very large percentage of the earth's population would no longer exist, and we certainly would not be approaching the 7 billion mark.

It would be quite interesting if all readers of this article posed the following questions to the MJS: What percentage of our ancestors slept with their infants? Can you provide evidence that the same percentage had infants dying from SIDS? The reality is that the majority of our ancestors in various cultures slept with their infants going back tens of thousands of years. One must wonder how many of these infants were victims of SIDS. The answer is obviously zero, because SIDS is a manmade modern disease (just like hundreds of other diseases) that never existed throughout history or prehistory.

The Journal Sentinel said Milwaukee had an "infant mortality crisis." The city has set a goal of reducing the infant mortality rate for blacks by 15 percent, and the overall rate by 10 percent by 2017, the MJS said. They intend on accomplishing this by promoting misinformed ads that does little to solve the problem because there has never been even a mildly significant causal relationship (based on real science) between bed-sharing and SIDS deaths let alone infant mortality.

"Shame on Milwaukee Co-Sleeping Ads" was the title of Danielle625's post on Baby's First Year, a blog on the parenting website Babble. She co-slept with her three children and said co-sleeping -- when "done safely" -- was harmless, even beneficial, citing a page on the prominent parenting website Ask Dr. Sears.

In almost all cultures around the globe, babies sleep with an adult, while older children sleep with parents or other siblings. It is only in industrialized Western societies such as those in North America and some parts of Europe that sleep has become a private affair. The West, in fact, stands out from the rest of humanity in the treatment of its children during sleep. In one study of 186 nonindustrial societies, children sleep in the same bed as their parents in 46 percent of the nonindustrial cultures, and in a separate bed but in the same room in an additional 21 percent.

In another survey of 172 societies, all infants in all cultures do some co-sleeping at night, even if only for a few hours. The US consistently stands out as the only society in which babies are routinely placed in their own beds and in their own rooms.

Anthropologist John Whiting also found a simple association between climate and parent-child co-sleeping (among other behaviors). Evaluating 136 societies, Whiting outlined four kinds of typical household sleeping arrangements: mother and father in the same bed with baby in another bed; mother and baby together and father somewhere else; all members of the family in separate beds; and all members of the family together in one bed. The most prominent pattern across cultures, Whiting discovered, was mother with child and father in another place or baby sleeping with both mother and father (66 percent in total of 136 cultures).

Co-sleeping and SIDS Have No Scientific Relationship

Three major epidemiological studies have shown that when a committed caregiver, usually the mother, sleeps in the same room but not in the same bed with their infant the chance of the infant dying from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is reduced by 50%.

That a specific adult caregiver appears necessary for protection lends support to the hypothesis that it is in the nature of the mutual sensory vigilance i.e. the social and biological connection between an infant and its caregiver that is critical if co-sleeping is to be protective (or dangerous).

Most USA and other western infants die from SIDS or from fatal accidents during solitary sleep outside the supervision of a committed adult.24 Moreover, the overwhelming number of suspected accidental overlays or fatal accidents occur not within breast feeding--bedsharing communities but in urban poverty, where multiple independent SIDS risk 'factors' converge and bottle feeding rather than breast feeding predominates.

The commitments by professionals to this one-size-mustfit-all ideology regarding sleeping arrangements makes it easier for SIDS and pediatric sleep researchers to believe, a priori, that any violation of this artificially validated moral principle will inevitably or probably, lead to harm. This cultural history explains why discussions about where infants should sleep have never taken place on a level scientific playing field and why anti-bedsharing descriptive reports are permitted to draw conclusions and make sweeping recommendations based on incomplete and anecdotal data.

Based on objective evidence, these studies allegedly showing how dangerous it is for an infant to sleep next to its mother should not be difficult to challenge on scientific grounds, except that the ideologies associated with the appropriateness of infants sleeping alone are so
deeply embedded within the methodological, analytical and interpretive choices made by researchers that both the science and the ideology become one and the same. Many pediatric clinicians think nothing, for example, of writing articles and books about solving problems (safety or otherwise) associated with solitary infant sleep but assume in contrast that parental sleep problems associated with co-sleeping are either not worth solving, should not be solved or cannot be solved, further illustrating the extent to which personal preferences and choices are easily confused for science in this area.

As regards how this affects the 'bedsharing debate,' consider that when critical data about infant bedsharing deaths are missing, health authorities act as if associated details pertaining to why the infants died are unnecessary. Instead, both researchers and health authorities (knowingly or not) fall back on at least 100 years of negative assumptions and anti-co-sleeping rhetoric strengthened by a general
societal ignorance sustained by never having been exposed to any science or set of arguments that shows a different perspective.

Why Is Co-sleeping and Bed-Sharing Important?

There are also many options and custom arrangements that parents can choose from when deciding to put infants in their beds. One example shown below allows parents to enjoy the benefits of co-sleeping using age-old wisdom combined with modern technology.

Why is co-sleeping important? Science is just now learning the answer to that question. No one yet knows why animals sleep, but we do have a pretty good idea how sleep occurs. Like most physical states, sleep involves a number of biological or physiological mechanisms. Sleep is controlled by the primitive brain stem, which sends messages to and from the heart, the lungs, muscles around the diaphragm and ribs, and hormone- producing organs - all systems that monitor and regulate the choreography of sleep. In sleep, just as during times of wakefulness, adult humans shift through periods of controlled neocortical-driven breaths and automatic brainstem-initiated breaths. Adults are able to manage the shift between these types, but infants do it less easily. Infants are born with neurologically unfinished brains. They don't develop the ability to easily navigate types of breathing until they are at least three to four months old, and the sleep patterns of newborns reflect this. As mentioned earlier, they are unable to consolidate periods of sleep and don't distinguish between day and night; they also spend more time in REM sleep than adults do.

When sleeping with her mother, a baby reacts to her movements and goes through any number of changes in sleep stages, far more than when the infant sleeps alone, practicing the transitions from one kind of breathing to another. Left alone, babies must steer through night sleep with little training, and no external environmental stimuli or cues. Most babies eventually develop the skill to shift between types of breathing as their brains develop. But for some infants, such shifts may be harder; they could benefit from the external metronome of parental breathing. Co-sleeping, with all its entwined movements through various levels of sleep, and its physical checkpoints, may be exactly what nature intended to ensure babies survive through the night as well as learn how to sleep and breathe on their own.

Most parents in Western culture, by opting not to co-sleep, have thus altered the physical parent-baby interaction during sleep hours. But it is important for parents who have done so to realize that they have opted for this arrangement because of cultural reasons, not out of biological appropriateness. What these well-meaning parents do not realize is that they might also be putting their babies unnecessarily at risk.

Infant needs and parental responses to those needs do, after all, constitute a dynamic, co-evolving system, a system that was, and is even now, being shaped by natural selection to maximize infant survival and improve parental reproductive success. Culture may change, and society might progress, but biology is modified at a much slower rate. Babies are still stuck with their Pleistocene biology despite our modern age, and no amount of technological devices or bedtime routines will change that. What babies need from parents is to be part of that interactive parent-baby system that evolved for good evolutionary reasons, and which is a biological necessity even today.

Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.



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