Safe Bed-Sharing Myth

Tammy Jones – Author

Internet sites and articles that promote “safe bedsharing” are grossly misleading.  What’s behind their fervor?  

Here’s some of the propaganda and myths and why they’re wrong: 

1)   “We practice safety.  We bought a safe, firm mattress and removed the pillow top.”

Any mattress made and manufactured for adults is unsafe for infants.  There’s no way to get around that.  In addition to memory foam and pillow tops, the basic padded quilting on the top of the most simplistic adult mattresses make them unsafe for infants.  Compare them to a safety approved crib mattresses.  Place your index finger on an adult mattresses; it is soft and will compress in ways a safe crib mattress will not. 

Adult bodies also compress the mattress.  It is important that an infant sleep on a firm, flat surface with no compressed areas. 

Lastly, if you wouldn’t put pillows, comforters and other fluffy bedding into a crib – what makes you think they’re safe just because they’re in an adult bed? 

Why take the unnecessary risk? 

2)   “We keep our pillows and blankets away from the baby.” 

Pillows, blankets, comforters or duvets are dangerous for infants no matter what the location of sleep.  In adult beds, many proponents of bedsharing simply say to keep them away from the infant.  How far away?  How far away is safe?  2 inches?  5 inches?  12 inches?  The fact of the matter is that we all move during sleep.  Adults move and so do babies.  A baby’s nose is very small and a blanket or pillow moved too close to a baby could interfere with the free exchange and movement of oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide.  

Why take the unnecessary risk? 

3)  “Those babies who die while bedsharing were sleeping with drunks or drug addicts.” 

Yes, it’s true that a lot of babies who die while bedsharing were sleeping with people under the influence; however you don’t have to be drunk or drugged to roll too close to or onto an infant during sleep.  You also don’t have to be drunk or drugged to move a pillow or blanket – in fact, most of us do that every night.  We move around a lot during sleep without ever realizing it.

The human brain limits input from your external environment during sleep and because this input is markedly inhibited, so is your conscious awareness.  While a mother may have greater awareness or may have more arousals, it is simply not enough to guarantee your baby’s safety.

In addition, things that one may consider benign, such as allergy medication, antidepressants, a glass of wine with dinner or simply getting less than eight hours of sleep can all interfere with normal arousal.  Once you make the decision to bedshare, there is no way to guarantee your circumstances won’t change, you won’t have to take medication or that you will never become overly tired. 

Why take the unnecessary risk? 

4)  “In countries where bedsharing is the norm, SIDS is the lowest.”

And the truth lies in what they don’t tell you.  Many comparisons with other countries are grossly misleading and often used by those who may lack detailed knowledge on SIDS research.  Unfortunately, the ways in which infant deaths are investigated and diagnosed vary from country to country and even state to state in the US.  For example, up until 1995, Japan held two definitions of SIDS.  In 1995, researchers found that “Suffocation as cause of death is rarely recorded in western countries. The situation in Asia is essentially different. Taiwan and Japan both record suffocation rates that are higher than SIDS rates and together these two causes of death sum up to values similar to those for SIDS in western countries.”[1]   Additional research in Japan has found bed sharing to be a risk factor for SIDS. 

Why take the unnecessary risk? 

5)  “Bedsharing is natural, the biological norm and it encourages breastfeeding.”

Sadly it’s a fact of nature that many mammals accidentally suffocate their offspring while nursing or sleeping.  The infant mortality rate of our ancestors is not something we’d find acceptable in modern society today.   Thankfully, we’ve evolved, we’ve learned to adapt and make things safer for our children. Thousands of women have successfully nursed and bonded to their babies without exposing them to the risk of bedsharing and the risk of death.  Our children can be healthy, happy and successfully breastfed alongside in a safe bassinet or crib.  Most of all, they’re most likely to be ALIVE to reap these benefits.

Why take the unnecessary risk?

 6)   “They have something against bedsharing or else they’d be teaching mothers to bedshare safely!”

There is only one reason why most pediatric/SIDS experts aren’t teaching anyone to safely bedshare – and that’s because that ideal doesn’t exist.  Certainly, there are safer ways to do anything risky but with the adult bed and bedding being inherently dangerous to infants, coupled together with hundreds of different variables in adult behavior, no well-informed, ethical pediatric professional of good conscience could recommend the practice.

A better or more interesting question may be – “Why aren’t those who have advocated bedsharing for its benefits and now knowing the current research, advocate that infants be alongside in their own, protected space?” 

 If the well documented risks are removed and the positive benefits maintained, why would they be opposed to focusing their advocacy to co-sleeping alongside?  Anthropological researcher and bedsharing advocate James McKenna has stated that babies can reap the same benefits as bedsharing by being in close proximity, alongside the parent’s bed in their own protected space.

If the benefits are the same – why introduce the unnecessary risk of death to your baby?

The risks involved with the adult bed have been demonstrated time and time again through scientific research and that body of evidence continues to grow.  Yet new parents are choosing to bedshare because they read the propaganda and mistakenly believe it can be done “safely.”

The telling question that remains for me is:   

 What do they have to lose by discouraging bed-sharing and promoting a baby sleeping safely alongside?

[1] PEDIATRICS Vol. 107 No. 3 March 2001, pp. 530-536  Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Bedsharing, Parental Weight, and Age at Death. Cindie Carroll-Pankhurst* and Edward A. Mortimer Jr.

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