Parenting is hard. Sometimes it even sucks.
As parents, we’re trained to not say things like this. We’re supposed to say things like “every child is a gift” or “you never know true happiness until you become a parent” or “I can’t wait until school starts back up in the fall.”
Many parents are shamed by the privileged “sanctimommies” for not being the perfect parent – having a Cesarean section (opposed to a “natural” birth), bottle feeding (instead of breastfeeding), or having a career outside the home (opposed to being a stay at home parent). While there’s obviously nothing wrong with “natural” birth, breastfeeding, or being a stay-at-home parent, it’s not for everyone.
Sometimes Cesareans are necessary. Not every mother and baby are going to be able to breastfeed. Sometimes a parent has to work outside of the home to make ends meet (the horror!). These are all decisions that parents make for themselves. While you may disagree with how a parent raises their child, unless they’re doing something dangerous or illegal, it’s none of your fucking business in the first place.
So I was appalled when I read an article posted by the LA Times today suggesting that co-sleeping is not only okay, but beneficial for children. It’s not.
The article is written by Robert LeVine and Sarah LeVine, who are promoting their book. The title of the book is, in a word, weird.
Do Parents Matter? Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax.
Yes, parents matter, most babies sleep fairly soundly, Mexican children probably fight just as much as any other nationality, and most people should probably relax. (There, I saved you the time of reading their book.)
But the introduction of the article is an immediate appeal to emotion and attempts to shame parents for not co-sleeping, saying:
In most of the rest of the world…parents think it’s downright cruel to put a baby in a separate room or even a separate bed. Who would be so heartless?
Well, me. I would be so heartless.
I did not co-sleep with either of my children. My rationale was because the American Association of Pediatrics discourages co-sleeping, and because I know the AAP’s position on co-sleeping is based on available evidence. But even if I didn’t care about what the AAP says, I know that even as parents, we deserve some goddamn restful sleep. How can you expect to care for your child if you’re not even caring for yourself? Yes you’re a parent, but you’re still a person.
So what does the actual data say?
First, the article itself does not actually provide any data pertaining to co-sleeping. The only actual statistics provided are infant mortality rates and speculation (but no supporting data) that the rates in other countries is not a result of their higher level of co-sleeping. It’s true that the infant mortality rate in the US is higher than many other developed countries, but a study suggests that socioeconomic status (and therefore access to healthcare) plays a large factor in the infant mortality rate.
Interestingly, the infant mortality rate in the US has dropped from 6.14 deaths per 1000 births to 5.87 deaths per 1000 births since the 2010 Affordable Care Act gave more people access to healthcare (including postnatal care).
The authors briefly mention sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Co-sleeping has been directly linked to SIDS. Another study found that over a third of SIDS victims were co-sleeping at the time of their death. This study found that infants who co-slept had twice as many oxygen desaturation events (times when the oxygen saturation of the blood went below 90%) than those who did not co-sleep. You can read a more detailed analysis of the study at Science Of Mom.
There’s mention of parents in Japan “universally” co-sleeping with their infants as well. Since the authors didn’t provide a source for this, they’re relying on ignorance of cultural norms/argumentum ad populum at best, and lying at worst. While nearly two thirds of Japanese parents in one study indeed self-reported sleeping with their child within arm’s reach, a third of Japanese parents did not. I hardly consider that to be “universal.”
I talked to Dr. Amy Tuteur of The Skeptical OB about this article, and she said:
I struggle to understand why some people are obsessed with how other people’s children sleep. I imagine that they think that co-sleeping provides a better start at emotional development. Yet Japan has an extraordinarily high teen suicide rate; It’s hard to imagine a more chilling indicator of poor child emotional health than that.
Indeed, Japan has the highest suicide rate of any developed nation in the world. Using the logic from the LA Times article, we should attribute that to co-sleeping too, right?
The one quasi-relevant source in the article is James McKenna, whom the authors say:
[McKenna] provided detailed evidence of the physiological synchronization between mother and infant when they sleep together, especially when the mother also breastfeeds responsively. He considers this arrangement optimal and calls it “breastsleeping.”
What I gathered from this word salad is that we have a man telling moms that they should feel guilty about not sleeping with their infants, and especially so if she’s not breastfeeding. There’s nothing particularly new or revolutionary here as culturally, women have been expected to stay at home to do the child rearing while the man works to pay the bills.
The article also provides another quote romanticizing co-sleeping from Christine Gross-Loh:
After years of living [in Japan] on and off, my husband and I (and even our kids) have noticed that most children — the same children who sleep with their parents every night — take care of themselves and their belongings, work out peer conflicts, and show mature social behavior and self-regulation at a young age.
While Gross-Loh’s observations may be accurate in her own personal experience, that’s also irrelevant to the discussion of co-sleeping with infants. We’re not talking about those times your pre-schooler wakes up in the middle of the night, stumbles into your room, climbs into your bed, you wake up surprised that there’s an extra body in the bed, then have the internal debate as to if you can move him back into his own bed without waking him up and if he does wake up, if he’ll go back to sleep (not that this is the exact situation I dealt with at 4 am this morning or anything). That’s not the issue here. Children of that age are more developed and less likely to fall out of the bed, as they have better motor control.The headline for the article is in defense of co-sleeping, not for children who have a capacity to work out peer conflicts.
… Unless, of course, we’re talking about those crazy knife fights newborns are known to get into.
Articles like the one published in the LA Times today only serve to further confuse parents who are often already scared and just want to do what’s best for their kids. The article is not backed by science and the opinions shared in it are flat-out wrong.
So am I saying that I think you’re a bad parent if you co-sleep? Certainly not. At the end of the day, it is the parent’s responsibility to ensure the safety of their own child.
However, the evidence strongly indicates that co-sleeping with an infant is not safe. The fact is we have solid data that babies are dying from a preventable cause.
Even if you’re on the fence about the data, why risk it?