In April, a 5-month-old died while taking a nap with his mother in Wichita. It was the city’s seventh “co-sleeping death” case this year, according to a Wichita Eagle report.
That’s compared with seven similar baby deaths in all of 2015. All died while sleeping in the same bed with someone else.
“It looks like it’s going to be an abominable year,” Christy Schunn, the director of the Kansas Infant Death and SIDS Network, told the Wichita newspaper.
In Leavenworth County three children have died in the last year after sleeping in bed or on a sofa with their parents.
When Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson looked at the evidence in those cases he determined that the parents were not criminally responsible.
He called the deaths “tragic accidents” in a public statement.
“It’s our hope that raising awareness of the dangers of parents bed-sharing with their child will prevent future tragedies,” Thompson said.
“We are aware that many parents want to bed-share because that is the only way the child may be able to sleep. We also know that these deaths aren’t due to parents not caring for their children, but in fact doing what they feel is best for the child.”
But what, really, is best for the child? American health officials, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have spent years warning parents about the danger of sharing a bed with their baby — and proponents of co-sleeping have just as passionately stood their ground in this heated, ongoing parenting debate.
“The bed-sharing issue is contentious. It is fraught with controversy,” Pete Potts, the western region program and bereavement coordinator with Missouri’s SIDS Resource Center, told The Kansas City Star in a 2014 story revealing that 100 baby deaths since 2004 in Jackson County were believed to be related to co-sleeping.
Common ground is difficult to find. In a report published in March in Sleep Medicine Reviews, a group of researchers reviewed more than 650 published papers and studies about bed-sharing conducted between 1973 and 2015.
They found a lack of convincing evidence to make strong generalizations one way or the other. Researchers called on the fields of pediatrics, anthropology and psychology/psychiatry to work together for a broader understanding of infant sleep and how it influences a child’s development.
Some medical research, however, is clear.
A 2014 study from the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths reviewed 8,207 unexplained infant deaths in 24 states. The conclusion: 74 percent of the babies younger than 4 months were sharing a bed with a parent when the babies died.
Babies have been suffocated by soft bedding that covered their noses and mouths. Others have been involved in “overlay” incidents where a parent sleeping in the same bed accidentally rolled over onto the child.
Like Thompson in Leavenworth County, officials in Georgia, which has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, and elsewhere worry that warnings aren’t getting out. Parents seem to be getting mixed messages or, in some cases, simply ignore doctors’ advice.
A recent study of 43 teen mothers in Colorado revealed that even though they’ve been told that co-sleeping with their baby can increase the risk of SIDS, most do it anyway.
The teen moms said they get their parenting information mostly from their own parents, teachers and doctors — but most often followed their mothers’ advice.
“I was quite surprised to hear almost all of them admit making deliberate decisions to practice unsafe sleep behaviors despite being aware of SIDS and having been told about the risk factors,” the study’s lead author, Michelle Caraballo of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas told Fox News.
Health officials who read the Colorado study worried that the young moms thought they were being “safe” when sleeping with their babies by placing pillows around the infants, which actually increased the risk of suffocation.
The Natural Child Project and other proponents of co-sleeping, or bed-sharing, however, argue that having the baby in the bed with its mom promotes breastfeeding and bonding, and can be done safely if parents know how.
Proponents of the “think outside the crib” philosophy believe that children thrive when they feel safe — as in being close to their caregivers — especially during sleep.
They also point out that parents who can’t afford cribs have no other option but to have their babies in bed with them.
James McKenna, head of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at Notre Dame University and a leading co-sleeping advocate, says parents need to be better informed on how to make bed-sharing safe for babies.
McKenna told Quartz last month that he is skeptical of detractors’ advice, including that from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“I think sleeping with the baby is normal,” McKenna said. “This kind of caring, and the duration for which we do it, compensates for neurologically immature brains at birth.”
McKenna finds middle ground in an arrangement where the caregiver sleeps within sensory proximity of the baby, which can be anywhere from within hearing distance to holding the baby on your arm.
Recently in Georgia, where every week three infants die from sleep-related causes, the state’s first lady and state health officials launched a safe sleeping campaign.
“As a parent of four and grandparent of six, I understand how it feels when your children cry out in the night. It’s very tempting to want to place them in your bed, but the risks of bed-sharing are just too great,” Georgia first lady Sandra Deal said in a statement.
The campaign is designed around three words: alone, back and crib.
That echoes recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which came out against against the practice of bed-sharing in 2005.
Some of the academy’s recommendations: Do not sleep in the same bed with your baby. Babies should always sleep on their backs. And keep soft objects or loose bedding out of the crib — no pillows, blankets or bumper pads.
“More than 60 percent of sleep-related infant deaths in 2014 occurred in an adult bed. That is nearly 100 preventable infant deaths,” Brenda Fitzgerald, Georgia’s public health commissioner, said in announcing the statewide campaign.
“Babies need a separate sleep space, not in an adult bed or in an armchair or on a couch, and always on their backs.”
Simply educating mothers on safe sleep practices is not enough to change their actual behavior, said Fitzgerald.
“I do not know what it will take to induce behavior change in this high-risk demographic,” she said. “Unfortunately all I can say with certainty is that what we’re doing right now isn’t working.”