***Disclaimer: this post concerns my personal experiences and is not an indictment on anyone else’s choices.***
A few years ago, I had an internship through the office of the Los Angeles City Attorney, right around the time they were hoping to begin an anti-cosleeping campaign. The local chapters of several parenting groups were up in arms about this, citing studies about the importance of skin-to-skin contact and referencing our species-long history with sharing our beds with our children. Because I had an anthropology background and was interested in infant health/mortality in Los Angeles, I was asked to do some research on cosleeping and bedsharing from an anthropological perspective.
And the results were: there is obviously no arguing that cosleeping has played a major role in parenting since the dawn of our species, and all our ancestors survived, right? There hasn’t always been a crib in another room. In fact, there are countries today with very high incidence of cosleeping and very low infant mortality rates. However, and this is a big however, sleeping looked a lot different in our evolutionary history. There were no gigantic comforters, no memory foam mattresses, no piles of fluffy pillows. In addition, the countries that currently practice (generally more) safe cosleeping are places like Japan and areas of Africa, where people sleep on futons or cots, and not on downy clouds like this:
So, basically, much like anything else in the universe, there is no black and white answer. Demonizing a practice like cosleeping, which helps mothers sleep through the night and helps infants learn to regulate breathing and sleep patterns, is too extreme. Believing that sharing a bed with a newborn is inherently safe because that’s how it’s “always been” is an equally flawed argument, as it serves to deny our actual reality, which is that the world (and more precisely, human culture) has changed a lot since we evolved to birth giant-headed, totally helpless babies. When it comes to cosleeping, the standard shouldn’t be all or nothing. It should be, “Proceed with caution.”
Why am I, the Childless Wonder, writing about this? Great question, me. Without getting into details, my thesis focuses on infant mortality (not cosleeping specifically) and I spent several hours yesterday poring over post-mortem infant radiology reports. I’ve known since my days at the City Attorney’s office that bedsharing was a huge safety issue. However, yesterday, I found that in some years, a full third of the radiographs were for infant deaths due to cosleeping; or rather, the accidental suffocation associated with sharing a couch or an adult bed with several people or pillows or swaddles or cushions. That is terrible.
And I feel compelled to share that information with you. Not because I think those of you who are parents are negligent or irresponsible or incompetent dummies. And not because I want to terrify all of you into keeping your baby at a safe distance until they are strong enough to punch you awake should you roll on top of them while asleep. I’m sharing this because I don’t really know what else to do with the horror of the information than to tell everyone I can to be careful. Do not swaddle a cosleeping baby. Remove all your pillows and giant comforters and blankets. Don’t drink alcohol or abuse drugs or any other substances which cause unnaturally deep sleep. Do not sleep (or let your baby sleep) on the couch (which is, essentially, a massive pillow). If you can, invest in a co-sleeper. Remember that no matter how much you love your child and how responsible you are or how lightly you sleep, you are a still an adult and your baby is still an infant and no precaution is ever too much when you are both unconscious in the same space. Especially if it can be lifesaving.