Does Co-Sleeping Make Me A Bad Mom?

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Prior to having baby number two, I used to joke that there was no way that I’d have another baby who was as good a sleeper as my first-born son. I think it was just a sad attempt to unjinx myself – a way forcing fate to give me another awesome sleeper. No such luck. From the day she was born, my daughter was one of those babies who needed to be held constantly. And she wasn’t afraid express her dissatisfaction at being put down with a shrill, piercing scream.

By day four of her life, I was so exhausted that when my doula suggested that I try co-sleeping – something I had previously dismissed as being too dangerous and granola for my liking – I actually listened. She showed me how to lie in such a way that I wouldn’t roll over onto the baby. Not only would I not crush my little girl, but the position would enable her nurse whenever she felt like it.

To say that it was relaxing would be a lie: I was sleeping with the lights on, without blankets, on my side and with my arm raised in a crazy Twister-esque pose that’s supposed to make rolling over impossible. I would wake up with a sore arm and hip, but the good news is that I was waking up (read: I was actually sleeping!). This went on for two weeks.

During this time I tried to convince myself that co-sleeping was okay – as in, safe and natural – but it was hard to come to terms with that notion. When I finally got around to sifting through the package of papers that I’d been given while in hospital, I found one that set out in no uncertain terms that co-sleeping is never safe. This scared me enough to start transitioning Captain Cries-A-Lot into her bassinet.

Then, during our two-week check-up, my pediatrician asked about my daughter’s sleep. I mentioned that I often had to bring her into my bed to get her to sleep at night. Now I might have read her wrong, but the doctor’s response – “If you keep doing that, you will kill your baby!” – led me to believe that she is not a fan of co-sleeping. She then proceeded to tell me about an infant patient who died when his mother rolled over in her sleep. And, no, the mom was apparently not drunk or high – just tired. Because this story knocked the wind out of me, I didn’t ask any more questions, but in retrospect I wish that I had. For example, had the mother been taking all of the precautions that I had been? Were there other extenuating factors?

Last week a bunch of new reports emerged on a new infant sleep study being conducted by a nurse named Jennifer Combs. Combs reviewed 45 infant deaths and found that because some infant sleep deaths had not been classified as such, the number of sleep-related infant deaths was one in three, as opposed to one in five, which is the standard number. She is now reviewing a much bigger sample and says that she is seeing the same one to three ratio.

According to Combs, the two main causes of sleep-related infant deaths are accidental smothering with a blanket, pillow or other soft item, and adults rolling on top of babies while sharing a bed. But the media reports covering the study made it all about co-sleeping – specifically, about how we should never co-sleep.

Now it seems to me – in my mostly stupid and sleep-deprived state – that there are a few things wrong with the way this story has been reported by the media, the most obvious being that the story should not be exclusively about co-sleeping but rather safe sleeping. It should be about keeping soft toys and pillows out of cribs and about putting babies to bed on their backs and, yes, it should be about helping those people who will co-sleep, despite scare tactics, to find a safe way to do so. In fact, I think that my pediatrician should be doing that, too. So should the hospitals.

This is not to say that I think that co-sleeping is completely safe even when no booze or drugs are involved and every precaution has been taken because, like my pediatrician says, new parents are sometimes so exhausted they are basically drunk. But I’m a crazy person – the minute that I hear that there is a modicum of risk to my child, I will stop whatever behavior is in question, even where most rational people might not. I am my doctor’s target audience. But some people are going to co-sleep regardless and because of that I feel as though our medical community has an obligation to provide information about safe co-sleeping practices.

After seeing the pediatrician I started putting my daughter (now five weeks old) in her bassinet at night and for naps and she has mostly adjusted, but it has not been easy. There are times I want to cry with her. And, there are times in the early morning when because it’s light out, and because I know how to co-sleep safely, and because I don’t want to start the day so exhausted that I won’t be fit to take care of my children or drive safely or remember my husband’s name (or that I have a husband), I put her into bed with me. And we both sleep.

(Photo: Goodshot)