A few weeks ago, this picture popped up in my newsfeed.
As the happily bed-sharing mama of a very healthy 18 month-old, I was floored. It made my blood boil. Like the majority of parents worldwide, I do not believe it is safer for a small infant to sleep alone in a crib. I believe it is safer and healthier for babies to sleep beside their loving caregivers as they have done for millennia. But, like everything to do with child-rearing (ear-piercing, sharing, Santa…), bed-sharing – and its cousin, co-sleeping – is a hot topic. People talk about it a lot. You can find something terrifying on the internet to support any claim about it. And the mud-slinging comes from both quarters. On the one side, there’s the “YOU WILL KILL YOUR BABY BY SUFFOCATION!!!” contingent. On the other? “YOU WILL KILL YOUR BABY BY SIDS, PLUS, YOU WON’T EVEN BE ABLE TO BOND!!!”.
What’s a woman to do?
As a first-time pregnant mama, I was no more immune to the hysteria than anyone else. I was concerned about SIDS, suffocation, and making sure my baby grew up with a round head. Fortunately, I was nauseated and fatigued for most of my pregnancy, so I had the privilege of doing a hefty amount of bedside research.
My Bedside Table, November 2010 (please ignore the Dr. Spock and WTEWYE. I was young and I didn’t know any better):
I read about worldwide SIDS rates (lower for countries where co-sleeping is the norm); I read about the newborn’s challenge in transitioning from one sleep stage to the next (facilitated by synchronizing with the sleeping mother’s heart rate, breathing and brainwaves); I read about concomitant factors in most bed-sharing deaths (such as smoking, drug use, and formula feeding, all of which I continue to avoid); and finally, safe ways to bed-share: reducing the risk of suffocation by using firm bedding, no extra pillows, and placing baby on his back.
My husband and I decided we’d compromise and get one of those fancy co-sleeper things that attaches to the side of the bed. At over $300, it is the most expensive laundry hamper I have ever owned. Because when baby came, baby had other ideas. He rejected the co-sleeper, demanding to sleep face-down on my chest with a complete and beautiful lack of concern for any and all AAP recommendations. As good as it felt, I wasn’t comfortable with it. So we compromised again and exiled papa to a blow-up mattress on the office floor. Baby and I nuzzled together on our own bed, drowsily nursing from 9pm to 9am. I started to joke that I had never gotten so much sleep. Bed-sharing worked for us.
Mrs. BWF has already written an excellent post on bed-sharing, in which she explores the history and benefits of co-sleeping and how to do it safely. In this post, I take a look at some of the ways anti-bed-sharing campaigns spread their message. There’s some violent vitriol, prejudice and misinformation out there, and it’s not OK. It scares me. I worry that it will shame and isolate mothers who are bed-sharing simply because they intuit it is best for their baby, but are looking for ways to make it safer.
I began writing this post as a direct critique of one specific anti-bed-sharing organisation, because they were the ones responsible for the pseudo-edu-picture that got me mad. But then I read that group’s founder’s personal blog, and it broke my heart. She lost her 26 day-old son to positional asphyxia. She writes that her anti-bed-sharing campaigning has been her way to find meaning in her grief; that through her group’s actions, she feels he lives on. Reading her words, I felt all the spite drain out of me. Who cares if we disagree on these issues? She has lost her son.
The mothers of many anti-bed-sharing groups have lost children and that gives them a lot of latitude in my book. They have the right to say, “we think bed-sharing is dangerous” in the face of all our objections because, for them, it was. But the fear-mongering through which anti-bed-sharing organizations convey their message cannot receive the same consideration. Much anti-bed-sharing campaigning is not only misguided, but also unethical. It puts ideology before practice, diverting attention away from situational factors that contribute to most bed-sharing deaths, and putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of – who else? – mothers dearest.
10 Things I Hate About Anti-Bed-Sharing Campaigns
1. Making False Analogies
Making an analogy is an excellent way to explain something unknown (such as the sex appeal of Crocs sandals) by emphasizing its similarities with something that is known (such as the sex appeal of Lord Voldemort). But not all analogies are created equal. I could say, “My baby is a honey badger,” assuming that you know something about honey badgers. But my baby isn’t really like a honey badger at all, because he doesn’t have a honey badger’s loose, leathery skin. Also, he doesn’t fight and eat rattlesnakes. Yet.
My baby = honey badger is a bad analogy. A fauxnalogy, if you will. Having completed a truly unusual college course called ‘Analogy and Its Rituals’, I feel I am a good judge of this particular rhetorical device. And let me tell you, the analogies used by anti-bed-sharing campaigns are really, really bad.
As January mentioned in her post, a baby sleeping with his parent is nothing like a baby sleeping with a butcher’s knife.
And it’s not like “walking out into the interstate without looking at traffic.”
C0sleeping is not a “silent killer.”
And it’s not like Russian Roulette, though I do appreciate the admonishment to “rest mindfully knowing that you have one in the chamber.”
The Chances of Dying in a True Game of Russian Roulette (One in Six):
Total USA Infant Mortality Rate (all infant deaths up to one year, 6.6 per 1000 births):
Somehow, I can’t help but feel that these analogies are designed to invoke fear. Shared sleep, instead of being described as a peaceful slumber, is portrayed as a dangerous, dangerous thing. A dark and scary place where anything could happen. Infants do die in their sleep. Infants do die while bed-sharing. But the vast majority of these deaths occur within a context of situational factors – factors that have little to do with sleep and everything to do with waking life.
2. Refusing to acknowledge other factors contributing to infant death. Like the one called “poverty”.
Bed-sharing can be done safely. But many infants who bed-share are also at risk for death due to other factors. For example, a New Zealand study (1993) found that mothers who bed-shared were younger, less well-educated, of non-European origin, had 5+ kids, were unmarried, and their baby’s father was more likely to be unemployed. What commonly accompanies all of these factors? Poverty.
People with lower Socio-Economic Status (SES, loosely defined as access to resources) rarely receive adequate pre- and post-natal medical care. Mothers face all kinds of pressure to stop breastfeeding, and are more likely to smoke and battle substance addiction; they are more likely to work several low-income jobs – and, at the end of the day, just be plain exhausted. These factors have been linked to bed-sharing deaths, along with all other forms of infant mortality. Disenfranchised populations are also less likely to have been exposed to literature on how to bed-share safely.
When people say, “don’t bed-share!” what they’re really saying is, “don’t be poor!”
When they say, “bed-sharing is lazy,” what they’re really saying is, “We have no idea why poor babies die more often than rich babies, and we’re not interested in finding out.”
3. Being unwilling to link to reputable sources.
“You want studies and links Do some research on bed sharing deaths, SIDS,SUID, and unsafe sleep environments and infant deaths. I know your type, we give u links to scientific based studies and you stil find a way to dispute the findings. I am sorry telling the truth and saving babies threatens and bothers you ” (An anti-bed-sharing campaign page, Aug. 2012)
I’m not sure, but I think that if I were going to advocate an intervention changing the way infant care has been practiced for thousands of years, I would want to back it up with a list of articles longer than my arms.
And I have really long arms.
4. Being unwilling to critique other sources.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to trust research findings and medical recommendations in our consumer society. Nobody stands to profit from many of the ‘crunchy’ practices I love, so nobody is interested in funding objective research into them. And who’s to blame them? Every time a mother breastfeeds, she snatches money from the deserving hands of formula-making corporations. Homemade baby carriers mean only that another expensive stroller sits lonely in a Babies R Us aisle. And bed-sharing can never conscionably be accepted by anybody receiving funding from crib manufacturers.
The Juvenile Product Manufacturing Association, which bills itself as, “the only association solely dedicated to promoting the well-being of the juvenile products industry” (won’t somebody think of the children['s products manufacturers]!) represents 95% of the $6.02 billion industry. It funds research under the assumption that, “The safest place for a child is in a fully functional, properly assembled crib or other sleep environments specifically designed for children.” (JPMA) Apparently, the (already purchased) adult bed doesn’t count as one such sleep environment. And you can be certain that findings such as the one that, from 2005 to 2007, cribs and playpens were responsible for half of all nursery product-related deaths among children ages 5 and under don’t appear on their website.
I am much more inclined to trust research conducted by lone wolf Dr. James McKenna at the University of Notre Dame sleep lab. He used to study monkeys. Then he had a baby and realized that the best way to get baby to nap was to lie down beside him and breathe deeply. So he started studying mother-baby sleep interactions by attaching electrodes to their heads, and the rest is history. His work is not glamorous and it hasn’t netted him a lot of money. It’s not entirely thankless (I’m pretty sure there are a few AP mamas in love with this man) but it isn’t financed by an industry. Some anti-bed-sharers claim he has a nefarious hidden agenda to have us all in bed together, but in his words,
“I do not recommend to any parents any particular type of sleeping arrangement since I do not know the circumstances within which particular parents live. What I do recommend is to consider all of the possible choices and to become as informed as is possible matching what you learn with what you think can work the best for you and your family.”
5. Confusing SIDS with suffocation
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is not suffocation. SIDS is a diagnosis made when a post-mortem autopsy shows no signs of suffocation and the death scene investigation found no articles near the baby which may have caused suffocation. SIDS is a tragedy with several suspected causes but non confirmed. As one anti-bed-sharing website itself states, “…if a baby is going to die from SIDS there is no way to stop it.”
But these people also believe that parents who bed-share increase their child’s risk of dying from SIDS.
SIDS diagnoses are not made willy-nilly. For an infant death to be classified as SIDS, strict requirements must be met – requirements that are becoming increasingly stringent and may be the true cause of the reported decline in SIDS deaths over the last 10 years. Stating or implying that SIDS deaths are simply misclassified suffocation deaths is no small matter. It calls into question the careful and conservative conclusions made by Medical Examiners, coroners, police officers and doctors.
And finally, believing that because many SIDS deaths happen while bed-sharing, bed-sharing must cause SIDS, is to commit the common logical fallacy of ‘Ignoring a Common Cause’. It’s like believing that because research has shown that more deaths happen on Wednesday than any other day of the week, Wednesdays are inherently dangerous and we should adopt a new, 6-day calendar. Or make Wednesday a mandatory Stay Home And Avoid Catastrophe Day. Much as I would like to sleep in, this simply makes no sense at all. It would make more sense to investigate other potential factors, such as the nature of shift-work and how many people work double and graveyard shifts in the middle of the week. In the case of bed-sharing, acknowledging other common factors to SIDS and bed-sharing (as mentioned above) is the logical thing to do.
And as this study of 400 American infants found, the bed-sharing/SIDS connection disappears when other factors are taken into account.
6. Denigrating other parents’ choices:
“How have their babies survived? I guess pure dumb luck!”
Some anti-bed-sharing activists suggest that bed-sharers should have their kids taken away from them, or be charged with manslaughter in the case of an accident. While less extreme, the ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ albums hosted by some of these campaigns are inappropriate and unnecessary. In one group, over 100 pictures of infants in ‘unsafe’ sleep environments are offered for our “education” (read: derision). Some are stock photos, some are photos of the organizers’ angel babies (to their credit, the admins submit themselves to the same judgment they dole out), and some come from people like you and I. People who thought we were just posting cute pictures of our babies, never suspecting they would be re-shared with comments like, “What a death-trap” and “That baby is lucky to be alive!” attached to them.
The admin writes, “We seem to have a lot of pro bed shares coming here lately. To those people we will not argue or debate with you….Funny how people come on our page but not ALL the other pages who as [sic] promote safe sleep for infants!”
Well. Maybe it says something that bed-sharers are making a fuss on your site alone. Could it be that your work does not simply promote safe sleep for infants, but disrespect for other people’s parenting choices?
7. Focusing on the negative ( Anti- Something is not Pro- Anything).
It’s important to stand up for what you believe in, especially in memory of someone lost to tragedy. But being anti-something is bad for the heart. It does not help you to move on; it keeps you stuck. The group which disseminated the anti-bed-sharing picture at the beginning of this post could just as effectively be called Parents Advocating Safe Sleep Environments (or is that too passé?). But they persist in framing their work in the negative, drawing the ire of mothers like myself.
There are positive ways to express concern for other people, and other people’s children.
For example, Still Birthday is a genuine effort to acknowledge the pain of loss mothers and focus on healing. It’s not called ‘Mothers Against Callousness Toward Loss Mothers’ (and not just because MACTLM is a crappy acronym). Still Birthday is there for the positive to take place, and as founder Heidi Faith writes,
“This website marks a beginning–a new place to offer resources, inspiration, and hope. But, it’s also a place of ending. …I have ‘birthed’ this place, have presented it to the world, and now, I can step forward. I can begin to move on.”
Heidi and I come from different backgrounds, and there’s a good probability we see the world in very different ways. But I respect and admire the work she has done because it does not come from a place of judgment and ridicule. It opens space for people to experience grief in a multitude of ways and move through it on their own journey.
8. Promoting the idea that everything is in our control.
Most Americans are are not well-acquainted with death. We cover it up, we don’t talk about it, and we don’t have to encounter it too often. Somehow, we’ve started to think that we can control it. That if only we were perfect mothers, we would be able to foresee and forestall every possible danger. But we can’t. Motherhood is an advanced course in risk management.
No healthcare provider will tell you that there is no chance of your child suffocating beside you. James McKenna, Mr. Co-Sleeping himself, states that,
“To claim that there is NO chance of an adult overlaying a baby would be ridiculous, but so would it be irresponsible to claim that an infant could never be killed while traveling in an automobile, or while sleeping alone in a crib which has an overly soft mattress, or crib slats which do not prevent the infant’s head from passing between them. In each case, the dangers are significantly reduced – and the potential benefits of car travel or infants sleeping alone (where this is what parents want) can be realized — when the safety precautions unique to each choice of behavior are regarded.”
Some parents have lost their child to ostensibly safe co-sleeping. They did everything right: no smoking, no extra blankets, exclusive breastfeeding, and so on. And still, they woke up to find their child lying lifeless beside them. An unspeakable tragedy, but it does occur. I am aware of this possibility when I lie down to sleep beside my son, just as I am aware of the hurtling tonnes of ferocious metal – sorry, cars – on the freeway and the leap of faith I take every time I leave him with a babysitter.
We do all that we can but there is simply no way we can ensure that our babies are death-proof. This is part of the pain of being a mother, as Elizabeth Stone said, “to forever have your heart go walking around outside your body.” One anti-bed-sharing campaigner writes, “If you slept with your child in your bed, consider yourself lucky to still have a child alive.” Yes, of course I am lucky. Everyone with a child alive is lucky. Luckier than we could ever know.
9. Putting ideology before reality.
I cloth diaper, but put my son into disposables at night. Why? Because, much as I like to crunch like Grape Nuts, I do not like waking up to a pee-pee bed. I am a pragmatist. I believe activism should acknowledge and work with the reality of people’s lives before promoting an ideology. Even if I thought crib-sleeping was safer than bed-sharing, I would advocate safer practices for bed-sharing first. Why? Because people sleep with their babies. They always have, and they’re not likely to stop just because I told them to. People are more likely to throw their extra pillows off the bed than to go out and drop $300 on a new crib.
Cribs can be expensive. Some anti-bed-sharing campaigns do work with Cribs for Kids, providing cribs to low-income families. I appreciate this effort. But what about the families they cannot reach? Encouraging poor parents not to sleep with their children is either unrealistic (if there is nowhere else for baby to sleep) or just downright dangerous. Babies whose parents cannot afford a crib have slept in suitcases, drawers, duffel bags, bathtubs lined with blankets, couches, swings, carseats, strollers, and second-hand cribs with bars so far apart their entire bodies can slip through. None of these options are safer than sleeping in an adult bed.
A Crib With Bars So Far Apart, His Entire Body Could Slip Through:
The truly dangerous methods of co-sleeping are actually encouraged by anti-bed-sharing propaganda. For example, mothers who breastfeed and whose babies sleep in a crib usually get up several times a night to nurse. Mama picks baby up from her crib and takes her to a rocking chair or other comfortable sitting place and they nurse. Then mama gets up and puts baby back in her crib. Except when she doesn’t. Except when she’s dog tired from getting up five times a night, and drifts off into sleep with the baby at her breast, sitting upright in a chair (or even an adult bed) that was never meant for co-sleeping, and is not equipped to do so safely.
A National Centre for Health Statistics survey found that 42% of American parents co-sleep with their baby “at least sometimes”. We all know this often happens when parents are completely at the end of their rope with fatigue, such as when the infant is sick and refuses to sleep alone. Accidental co-sleeping is not safer than carefully considered, purposeful bed-sharing.
10. Refusing to acknowledge the benefits of bed-sharing.
I won’t bore you with endless rhapsodies on the intimacy of bed-sharing. But it is pretty great. Other benefits include easier all-night breastfeeding and more sleep. I night-nursed my little one until he was 17 months old and we’re still breast feeding in the daytime. I can’t imagine I would have done the same if I had to get up to nurse him five times a night. Instead, I just rolled over and latched him on in the instinctual half-sleep behavioral pattern of our ancestors. It works.
And it works for a reason: the 4am feeding releases more prolactin than feeds at any other time of day. Not only does prolactin increase milk supply, it also postpones ovulation. In Ye Olden Days, this meant that mama wouldn’t get pregnant until her baby was old enough to drop that feed, giving her body time to replenish and providing natural child spacing. Bed-sharing is part of a beautiful system designed to keep mamas and babies healthy and happy. It saddens me that anti-bed-sharers are so quick to mock and deride this ecology. I wouldn’t mess with it in a million years.
*Svea Boyda-Vikander is a mother, psychotherapist and visual artist. She works with mothers and other creative people in facilitating healthy parent-child relationships and artistic practices. In February of 2011, she gave birth to her first child at the Côte des Neiges Maison de Naissance (Birthing Centre) in Quebec. This experience opened her eyes to the powerful healing and spiritual potentials of birth, and it quickly became her passion. She is now conducting research into perinatal depression, loss, and cross-cultural infant care practices at Goddard College, VT. Svea believes motherhood is a political act deserving of support, acknowledgement and endless tubs of mascarpone cheese.