Co-sleeping, SIDS and a grieving family

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Meaghan is angry. Her emotions have run the gamut over the past few months since her three-month-old baby died: from shock and disbelief to contemplating suicide because her pain has been too much to bear.

But right now, she is angry: angry at tactless people, angry at the way her baby’s death was handled by professionals, and, most of all, angry at the way some of the media has sensationalised the dangers of co-sleeping. 

The death of Meaghan’s baby daughter Charlotte was one of those counted in the NSW coroner’s report that triggered a call to make it illegal for parents to bed share with their babies. The coroner’s report states: “Cause of death: SIDS. Risk Factor: Co-sleeping”. 

But really, Charlotte died in her cot; the cot was ‘side- carred’ next to Meaghan’s bed. As current SIDS and Kids guidelines advise, this is the optimum safe sleeping environment. Charlotte had her own sleeping space within proximity of her parents. She was also breastfed and her parents were non-smokers, two other factors said to reduce the risks of SIDS. 

“I had breastfed Charlotte during the night and popped her back into her cot next to me,” Meaghan says. “In the morning, our other children were trying to wake me and I muttered, ‘the baby is still asleep, I’m not ready to wake up.’” 

Of course, that doesn’t work well with small children, so Meaghan sat up, talked to her children and went to check her phone while she waited for Charlotte to wake. Then four-year-old Olivia reached over to touch Charlotte and said, “She’s very cold!” 

From that moment, it has been as though Meaghan, her husband and family have been sucked into a horror movie. 

“My husband tried to do CPR while I called the ambulance, then we were sitting in the lounge holding Charlotte when all I could see around me were boots and guns,” she says.

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“There were paramedics, police and detectives. A detective wearing blue rubber gloves took her off me. I know that’s standard but it felt so wrong to have somebody hold my baby with gloves on. 

“They closed off our bedroom as a crime scene while they checked and bagged everything for the next five hours. We couldn’t even go in and get a nappy for our two-year-old – the paramedics took Charlotte into our daughter’s room, so that was closed off too.

“When they had finished, they left. That was it. No social worker, nothing. They just packed up and took Charlotte away in a [bag like a] briefcase and left. 

“We were left sitting on the lounge totally confused wondering … what just happened?”     

Since then, Meghan has gone for days not being able to sleep or eat. She’s had to dry up her breast milk – she took medication but they did nothing, and she had the agony of her breasts bursting with milk at her baby’s funeral. 

She had flashbacks accompanied by strange sensations, remembering how cold Charlotte felt so graphically that she felt cold in the pit of her stomach and drank hot drinks to try and get rid of the sensation, only to burn herself because she drank boiling water. 

Meaghan also confessed to her husband that she had planned how to take her life and take her other children with her. It was then he took her for immediate medical help. 

Meaghan is now on medication as she tries to piece her life together around her children’s grief and questions. She says that her two-year-old, Caleb, pined for three weeks. 

“He lost weight, wouldn’t eat and just lay listlessly on the lounge. He was so attached to Charlotte and had been lying on her play mat, playing with her the night before she died,” she says. 

“Just when he was finally eating again, one night at dinner Olivia asked, ‘Why didn’t we need Charlotte? Why did you let those men take her away?”  

Since the loss of her sister, Olivia has become very motherly and protective towards Caleb, and will even bring her lunch home from preschool for him. Although she’s doing play and music therapy and seems to be grasping the permanence of death, she sometimes asks questions such as “So this is forever?” At other times she has asked “So have the doctors finished with her?” and “Did I die when I was a baby?” 

Ignorant comments from others are frustrating – and they hurt, deeply. Even well-meant comments can sting, Meaghan says, adding, “One day a friend was doing my dishes when she said, ‘you are doing so well.’ I asked, ‘am I doing too well?’ I keep wondering how I’m supposed to behave. I feel anxious all the time about being judged – you read about mothers whose babies have died and are seen as uncaring because they have been photographed somewhere partying. Although I’m not partying, I was in a shopping centre recently and caught myself laughing with Olivia when I suddenly thought, ‘I shouldn’t be laughing’.” 

Right now, though, Meaghan’s anger is fuelled by a call to make co-sleeping illegal. She says, “There are safe co-sleeping guidelines on the SIDS website. Rather than saying ‘ban co-sleeping’, people need education to make the safest choices possible.” 

Although it would be almost impossible to get accurate figures on how many babies share sleep spaces with their parents, according to one study  (Rigda, McMillen, & Buckley, 2000) around 80 per cent of Australian families have taken their babies into bed with them in the first six months, the highest risk period for SIDS deaths.  

While some babies do indeed die while co-sleeping, this number is low in comparison to the number of babies who share sleep with parents without any trouble.  

In addition, the media’s use of the term ‘co-sleeping’ can describe a wide range of situations; whether disclosed or not, it usually includes other risk factors, including sleeping on a sofa, sleeping with a parent or person who is affected by alcohol or drugs (prescription or otherwise), or parents who are smokers. 

And, like Meaghan’s case, you can even be included in the co-sleeping statistics when you have created a recommended safe sleeping environment and your baby has their own sleeping space, in a cot.    

Despite her devastating loss and having gone over and over what happened the day baby Charlotte died, Meaghan says there’s nothing she would do differently. 

“If we do have another baby, I would do everything exactly the same,” she says.

“In all of her three months and 10 days with us, I only spent one hour away from her, when our chicken jumped the fence and I had to catch it.  

“It gives me a lot of comfort that if it had to happen at all, Charlotte was with me when she died.” 

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Pinky McKay is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and the author of the best-selling Sleeping Like a Baby.

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