Headlines: Co-Sleeping increases risk of SIDS

With dismay I read the Guardian headlines yesterday – “Sudden infant death risk greater when parents share bed with babies”.

This study (a meta-analysis) conducted by Bob Carpenter of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and published in the BMJ, showed that babies younger than 3 months who were co-sleeping with their parents had a 5 times increased risk of dying from SIDS than babies sleeping in their own cot.  In fact, 81% of SIDS cases could be avoided if parents stopped co-sleeping. According to the study this was independent of known SIDS risk factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, or premature babies.

For me, these results are troubling.

Co-sleeping has kept me sane during the first difficult stages of motherhood.  Initially, it didn’t even occur to me to have Jamie sleep in my bed, but when he was about 3 weeks old I had reached the end of my strength.  I was fully breastfeeding and was just so tired!  Until then, I would get up whenever Jamie was hungry during the night and feed him while sitting up, and he would leisurely nurse for about 1.5 hours (and this every 3 hours), nodding off, waking up, feeding again – it was torture.  I wrote this post about the drawbacks of breastfeeding and one of the best advice that I got was to co-sleep.

This really transformed my life as a new mother.  I suddenly got enough sleep and also Jamie slept better, feeling safe cuddled to my chest and enjoying my body heat.  If he wanted food 5 times a night, I would just shove my nipple into his mouth whenever he stirred (it took a couple of weeks to teach him to latch on with both of us lying down) and get back to sleep.  We both woke up happy and relaxed and everyone was amazed how quickly I bounced back after birth and how well and rested I looked.

Of course I was nervous in the beginning, afraid to accidentally suffocate the baby.  I moved into the guest room as I was scared that my partner would roll over and smother Jamie and I followed all the advice about safe co-sleeping.  After a few weeks, when Jamie was about 2 months old, I bought a co-sleeper that attaches to our bed and moved back to our master bedroom.  Now he is five months old and sleeps in the cot half the time, and half the time with me in bed.  I love it and I think he does too.

I am sure if I hadn’t started bed-sharing with Jamie, I would not only have been miserable and tired but would have very likely also stopped breastfeeding after a few weeks.  It is known that breastfeeding protects from SIDS… (Hauck 2011)

So what does this study really mean?  It lead to an uproar by NCT, Unicef and ISIS who all issued statements pointing out weaknesses in the study.

Their main points of criticism are that (1) the data are 16-25 years old, and (2) that it was not clear to which extent other risk factors like alcohol, drugs and smoking could have been involved in reported deaths.  They criticise also that, to recommend (as the authors of the study do) that parents should ‘simply avoid bed sharing’ would show a lack of cultural awareness and also would not take into consideration that it is far more dangerous if over-tired mothers fall asleep on a chair or sofa while nursing.

As my spoilt brat of a son won’t give me enough time to critically assess the study myself, may I refer you to The Analytical Armadillo who has done all the work.

I think it would be a mistake to change co-sleeping behaviour following this apparently flawed publication.  However, we parents need to be aware of the potential dangers of co-sleeping and I hope that further studies will be conducted to address this issue.  Until then I will keep bed-sharing.  What about you?

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