How to Co-Sleep / Bed-share / Sleep-share Safely and That Terrible Milwaukee Ad

To start, I want to set the tone with this video interview with Dr. James McKenna on the biology of infant sleep:

In October, one of our Boba writers and committed co-sleeping parent, Jill, described her experience of sleeping with her children and pointed out some very important benefits of co-sleeping in her post Co-sleeping: Sleeping Like a Baby With Your Baby. In the post, she notes increased health and well-being for the child, documented lower rates of SIDS, and easier nighttime nursing, among other things.

Shortly after that post was published, I began seeing startling reports of anti- co-sleeping campaigns in Milwaukee which led me to write this post in response.

Sadly, there have been a high number of preventable infant deaths attributed to poor co-sleeping practices that sparked what I feel is a mis-informed and badly designed ad campaign, to say the least. The City of Milwaukee anti- bed-sharing campaign features babies asleep in an awkward position in an adult bed next to a butcher knife. The point, both inferred and directly stated by Milwaukee representatives, is that all bed-sharing (aka sleep-sharing, aka co-sleeping) is bad. In fact, the ad campaign is accompanied by an offer from an anti- co-sleeping organization for a free crib.

This same crib-giving organization launched its own controversial ad campaign in low-income areas of Pittsburgh earlier in 2011 featuring tiny coffins and the slogan “Your baby belongs in a crib, not a casket.” Late last year, Milwaukee launched an ad campaign featuring an adult bed with a tombstone as a headboard with a similar anti-bed-sharing message while also placing mattresses throughout the inner city with infant death images and slogans on them (Milwaukee has identified lower-income and Black American families as being at higher risk for infant fatalities attributed to co-sleeping in general).

This sort of shock-doctrine does not educate parents, nor does it inspire the kind of attentive, healthy connection that many parents who co-sleep safely create with their children - a connection that helps decrease infant death rates.

Dr. James McKenna, anthropologist and pediatric co-sleeping expert of the University of Notre Dame Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab (featured in the video above) was quoted by Time in response to the ad campaign as saying, ”Safe co-sleeping with breastfeeding is… humankind’s oldest and most successful feeding and sleeping arrangement... If mothers’ bodies were even remotely as dangerous as these city officials ignorantly and offensively suggest when comparing mothers to inert, unresponsive metal axe cleavers, none of us humans would be here today to object.”

Instead, Milwaukee (and other communities wishing to reduce their infant death rates) should focus on the do's and don't of co-sleeping, serving to educate those who wish to continue the practice safely.

Safe Co-Sleeping/Bed-Sharing

Dr. Sears, known attachment parenting expert and co-sleeping advocate (he prefers the term sleep-sharing), offers a valuable list of Do's and Don't for Safe Co-Sleeping Habits on his website including some of the following:

    • Take precautions to make sure baby cannot roll out of bed

    • Do not place the baby between mother and father, or other siblings as it is the mother that is most connected and responsive to the child at night, as sensitivity that prevents rolling over on the child

    • Place the baby on his or her back

    • When preferred, use a "side car" style co-sleeping bed so that the baby is in sensory reach, but on a different surface

Dr. Sears sites these unsafe co-sleeping practices as potentially fatal:

    • DO NOT co-sleep while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or while exhausted from sleep deprivation, which may diminish your sensitivity to your baby

    • DO NOT co-sleep if you are extremely obese

    • DO NOT sleep in garments with excessive strings or ribbons that could your child could get tangled in, and for the same reason, tie your hair back if it is very long

    • DO NOT over-bundled/cover the child

    • DO NOT co-sleep on a very cushiony surface, such as on a couch, or in a waterbed

Dr. Sears has also issued his own response to the insensitive Milwaukee ad campaign on his site via Dr. Sears Addresses Recent Co-Sleeping Concerns.

All infant fatalities are beyond sad, especially those that are preventable, and what we need more than shocking propaganda and inaccurate billboards is fact-based research and education. I hope Milwaukee takes the advice of thousands who are demanding a recall of the campaign (check out the petition), and that no communities follow in their faltering footsteps.