In New York state, where I currently reside, there is a “Babies Sleep Safest Alone” campaign, produced by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, that urges parents to always put their infant children to sleep on their back, rather than on their stomachs, which has been deemed a SIDS risk (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Fair enough. Research conducted over the last few years has indicated that simply flipping your child over from stomach to back greatly reduces the incidence of SIDS, or crib death (a peculiar and haunting moniker).
However, I should note that as much ink has been spilled in effort to curb SIDS, experts are still in the dark as to what primarily and exactly are the root causes of SIDS. The other more notable part of the New York campaign (and said plainly in the tagline) is the assertion that babies are better off sleeping on their own. Pointing out the potential dangers of unwittingly rolling over on the child and/or accidentally smothering the child is the chief objective of the campaign. Presumably, concerned parents exposed to this campaign’s message are frightened into submission, and babies who may have been warm and toasty in their parent’s bed are summarily ejected for the sake of the supposed safety of the child. What is wrong with this picture?
Well to take it all the way back to my previous post from earlier in the week, there is a veritable firestorm of ideas and heated furor on the subject of co-sleeping/ bedsharing/ family bed concepts that continue to divide and confuse parents. Many health professionals (but not all) will caution new parents about the numerous dangers of sleeping alongside your child, and how it should remain forbidden territory, much like the practice of leaving a child alone in a hot car. But many parents, pediatricians, breastfeeding advocates, and concerned citizens defend the practice as, not only safe when precautions are taken, but highly beneficial for both parent and child on multiple levels. As was evident from the vital and budding comment section from my last post, Care2 readers have a good deal to say on the matter.
I don’t need to encapsulate or summarize here, as I would urge everyone to read through the many illuminating accounts, tributes, and opinions posted by Care2 readers on the subject (everything from Freud to infant mortality is touched upon). The fact is, like it or not (Hello, NYS OCFS!) co-sleeping has been around longer than the Internet, longer than sanctimonious punditry, and longer than New York State and continues to be put into practice by the majority of cultures on this planet.
This is not to say that just because something has a long tradition, it is above reproach and not worth reconsidering, but the fact is that co-sleeping holds numerous emotional, developmental, and psychological benefits that, I would venture to guess, far outweigh the risks (some will obviously disagree with this bold statement). Everything from the lowering of stress hormones (in both mother and child) to the stability of the babies physiological functions, including the possibility of reducing the incidence of SIDS, has been listed as potential benefits to the act of co-sleeping.
But the element of risk is really the mobilizing factor for the most impassioned opponents of the practice. The obvious concern is that sleeping in close proximity to the parent will physically harm the child. That the adult sleeping environment is unsuitable for an infant, and that you are inviting a nocturnal dance with death every time you invite your child into your bed. Another element of concern for some people is the hindrance and delay of the child’s sense of independence from the parent. Many critics of the practice of co-sleeping dismiss and undermine the parent’s intentions as self-serving, and having little to do with the health and psychological well-being of the child and everything to do with the parent’s need to be needed. This is where the debate gets a bit ugly.
I think it is fair to say that everyone that is a sentient, caring individual is concerned with the welfare and safety of babies. Whether it is co-sleeping or the Ferber method, a thoughtful and constructive discussion should be ongoing and encouraged. However, any issue involving parenting that is frequently bracketed by panic and rebuke obviously needs another approach. Clearly, the practice of co-sleeping has not decimated the infant population and that most parents that do practice it, do it in a safe and conscientious manner. Sure there may be room for improvement, and increased safety, but does the state really have the right to mandate how we sleep and with whom we sleep with?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.