No black-and-white answers

It wasn’t at all what I expected.

Brittney Walker and I attended Monday’s “Safe Sleep Symposium” at Scottsdale Stadium. The educational event, organized by the Arizona Department of Health Services, pulled together professionals from many fields — medicine, social work, emergency response, child protective services and more. Their goal? To figure out what kind of educational outreach would be most effective in reducing the incidence of infant deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and tragic, sleep-related accidents.

Remember the Back to Sleep campaign? That effort has been hugely successful in reducing the number of SIDS deaths from suffocation. Moms and dads were told that it’s safest to put babies to sleep on their backs, rather than their tummies. The overall rate of SIDS deaths has declined dramatically since 1994, when the Back to Sleep message was first promoted. But now another, just as devastating, statistic is rising: child deaths that occur in adult beds.

It goes by many names — co-sleeping, co-bedding, “the family bed.” And it’s practiced in many cultures around the world. Here, it’s practiced by parents who seek  convenience (for breastfeeding moms) or a strong, loving bond with their children.

It’s a very personal choice, and one that clearly comes with risks. An emergency responder who spoke at the conference described finding a child who’d been suffocated by the weight of an adult who rolled over onto him in the middle of the night. Children have suffocated from loose or heavy bedding in an adult bed — or from becoming wedged between the bed and the wall. So I was expecting the professionals at the Safe Sleep Symposium to be adamantly united in a message against co-sleeping.

But they weren’t.

Brittney (an admitted co-sleeper who began the practice out of desperation when she was pushed to her limit by a baby who would scream for five and six hours each night) was part of a panel of woman who’d made the same choice and were there to explain it. I was sitting in the back of the room during the discussion, waiting for my turn to talk during lunch about “Messaging for the Media.” I was astonished, as I listened and watched, to see many of the heads in front of me nodding in agreement as Brittney and the two other women defended their co-sleeping practice.

By the time the panel ended, I was completely dumbfounded. You expect the pros to be very black and white about rules. Especially when it comes to safety. But they weren’t. They acknowledged that there are many positives to co-sleeping, and sometimes many economic reasons why it’s the only choice. (Some families, obviously, can’t afford cribs and separate bedrooms for their children.)

So it’s a tricky message they have to craft: that co-sleeping can be dangerous but there are ways to make it less so. Like never bringing a child to your bed when you’ve been drinking alcohol or taking sleep-inducing drugs. Like making sure you have a firm mattress (no cushy pillow top!) and there are no fluffy pillows or heavy blankets anywhere near the baby. Like positioning the baby near your waist, not your face.

One nurse I spoke to before I left told me that she thinks of it the same way she does many other safety hazards. Take ATVs. “I’ve seen so many accident victims,” she said. “But what are you going to do? Tell people they shouldn’t have ATVs? Or that their children shouldn’t be allowed on them? At least they’re out there pursuing a family activity that they enjoy doing together.”

If we wanted to keep our children 100 percent safe, we wouldn’t let them ride their bikes or roller blade or skateboard or cross the street, for that matter. Instead, we teach them the safest methods for navigating their lives. We make them wear helmets and we teach them safety rules. We take precautions on their behalf and we follow the safety rules ourselves. And we hope for the best.

Download the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development brochure “Infant Sleep Position and SIDS.”

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One response to “No black-and-white answers

  1. For centuries, humans have slept with their babies -probably instinctively, to protect them and keep them warm.
    Sometimes as parents we are simply too exhausted not to bring a baby into bed with us so we can doze. Thanks for the tips on what to know if you do co-sleep, even on that rare occasion where you simply cannot stay awake.
    As in all things – nothing is black and white.

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