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.
Similarly, here in Australia, SIDS and Kids guidelines state: "Sleep baby in its own safe sleeping environment next to the parent’s bed for the first six to twelve months of life."
But many mothers and fathers ignore that advice, as studies show that the majority of parents sleep with their babies at least some of the time.
Anthropologist James McKenna, author of the book Sleeping With Baby, is head of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame. He argues that safe bed-sharing can and does occur, and that the recommendation of the pediatrics academy is too simplistic.
He said medical professionals have "isolated themselves from what parents are doing", and that they don't provide them with information they need to sleep with their babies safely. Parents, knowing their doctors would disapprove, may actually claim they don't sleep together because the baby begins the night in the crib; what they may not say is that the baby often 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 breastfeeding 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 most western cultures, where 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 other academy members 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 simply exhausted.
McKenna agrees that babies shouldn't sleep in those dangerous circumstances. But he said prevailing 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."
The Charlotte Observer with staff writers