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Doctor defends parents sleeping with infants

By Karen Garloch
Karen Garloch
Karen Garloch writes on Health for The Charlotte Observer. Her column appears each Tuesday.
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- James McKenna
James McKenna, author of “Sleeping with Baby” and head of the Mother-Baby Behaviorial Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.

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Mention parents sleeping with their infants, and you get a lot of debate.

The American Academy of Pediatrics flatly recommends against it, because of the risk that co-sleeping could result in a baby’s suffocation. Since 2005, the academy has recommended “room-sharing without bed-sharing.” That means using a crib or bassinet near the parents’ bed.

But many mothers and fathers ignore that advice. Studies show that a majority of parents sleep with their babies at least some of the time.

Anthropologist James McKenna, who literally wrote the book on “Sleeping With Baby,” will be in Charlotte Thursday for a daylong conference on “Co-Sleeping: The Other Side of the Story.” ( www.charlotteahec.org)

McKenna, head of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, argues that safe bed-sharing can and does occur and that the pediatrics academy recommendation is too simplistic.

He said medical professionals have “isolated themselves from what parents are doing,” and don’t provide them with information they need to sleep with their babies safely. Parents, knowing their pediatricians would disapprove, may actually claim they don’t sleep together because the baby begins the night in the crib. What they may not say, McKenna said, is that the baby ends up in the adult bed by morning.

“I advocate bed-sharing for informed parents that feel they are able to create the safest bed-sharing environment for their baby, which begins with breastfeeding,” he said. “… It is much less likely that breast-feeding mothers will ever roll over on their infants (because) they sleep lighter, and both mother and baby are conditioned to be more sensitive.”

Mothers and babies often share beds in other cultures, but one of the differences is that they’re often sleeping on the ground or on mats on the floor. They don’t use all the fluffy blankets and pillows that have become a tradition in the U.S. Extra, soft bedding can cover the baby’s face and obstruct breathing.

McKenna was an adviser to the pediatrics academy’s task force, and he voted against the recommendation against bed-sharing. But he and the academy agree that babies are safest if they sleep close to parents. Studies show that room-sharing is associated with a reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome, the unexplained death of infants in the first year of life.

The academy’s recommendation was also aimed at avoiding the many tragic cases of babies who suffocate while sleeping on a couch or recliner with parents who may be drunk or exhausted.

McKenna agrees that babies shouldn’t sleep in those dangerous circumstances. But he said prevailing U.S. public health messages incorrectly imply that all co-sleeping is dangerous.

“I don’t like the rhetoric,” McKenna said. “…The worst thing (is that) parents are being taught that they have nothing to say in decisions about their own babies.”

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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