The city of Milwaukee, worried about its alarmingly high infant mortality rate, has undertaken an initiative to reduce the instances of death by 15 percent in the African American community and 10 percent overall by 2017.
And they don’t care if they have to shock a few people to do it.
The newest push — a public safety campaign about the dangers of putting babies to sleep anywhere besides a crib and in any position besides on the infant’s back. Referred to many as co-sleeping (although technically it is bed sharing), parents, guardians or other caretakers have often bedded down with a child next to or on top of them in an effort to share sleep. But many opponents of the practice worry about the potential for a child to smother, or that it can also raise the risk for SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). To illustrate the risk, the city public service campaign involves posters of an infant face down on an adult mattress with a knife resting under the pillow next to it. “Your baby sleeping next to you could be just as dangerous,” the poster warns.
“Is it shocking? Is it provocative?” asked Commissioner of Health Bevan Baker said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Yes. But what is even more shocking and provocative is that 30 developing and under-developed countries have better rates than Milwaukee.”
The poster offers a number for those who need access to a crib to obtain a donated one, and an informational page advocates for infants to sleep in the same room as parents, although not in the same bed or chair. The site also states that a majority of those infants that died of SIDS in the city were in “unsafe sleeping conditions.”
But does “unsafe sleeping conditions” really mean all co-sleeping is bad? As Annie Urban writes at her own website, co-sleeping actually works for many families and provides healthy benefits for children — if done properly. “Saying that co-sleeping is dangerous is like saying that riding in a car is dangerous. There is no way to make car travel completely safe, but no method of travel is completely safe. Most reasonable people take precautions to make car travel as safe as possible, but some idiots do stupid things like drinking and driving, not wearing a seat belt, driving too fast, or not putting their children in car seats. It is the same thing with infant sleep. Babies do die in their parents’ beds. But they also die in cribs.”
Some of the risk factors that do need to be watched for when it comes to unsafe co-sleeping conditions should seem obvious — never sleep with an infant when you are impaired, either with alcohol, drugs, too little sleep (a challenge for many parents), if you have an issue with severe obesity or if you smoke. There should be no gaps in the mattress that an infant can fall into, no pillows or bedding to become tangled and potentially constrict airwaves, no overcrowding in the bed.
I should disclose — I am an on and off co-sleeper. For the first few weeks of my son’s life, he would only sleep when laying on one of us, and although we tried to trade shifts, occasionally we would break down and I would take him straight to bed. Even now, when he has a cold, or is teething, or for some other reason is having sleep disturbances and won’t calm down, I bring him to bed for the night while my husband sleeps on the couch. Would I want to do it permanently? No, I find I never go into a very deep sleep when I’m with him, and every movement wakes me back up. But because of that instinctive response, I find it difficult to accept that all co-sleeping is dangerous, and wonder if a better campaign would be to remind parents to avoid the risk factors that make caring for infants more dangerous — drinking, smoking, drug use — rather than just the sleeping itself.
Photo credit: City of Milwaukee Health Department
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