Experts: 'Co-sleeping' with baby never OK

Sunday, January 25, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- Unsafe sleep practices are causing otherwise healthy babies to die in St. Louis, city police and medical experts said Friday.

They said preventing such deaths is as easy as ABC -- a baby should sleep Alone, on its Back and in a Crib.

The St. Louis city medical examiner's office listed unsafe sleeping practices as the cause of 19 baby deaths last year, 14 in 2007, and eight in 2006. Already this year, a 2-month-old boy was found lifeless at home while sleeping with his parent.

Dr. Shalini Paruthi, director of the pediatric sleep center at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, said some believe it is "natural, protective and beautiful" to bring a baby to bed with the parent, also known as "co-sleeping."

But the "tragic truth," she said at a news conference with health and law enforcement officials, "is that the baby can die while in bed when its breathing becomes obstructed."

Paruthi said the safest alternative is placing a child in a crib next to the parents' bed.

Sharing an adult bed with the baby didn't account for all the deaths of otherwise healthy St. Louis babies from 2006 to 2008.

Some deaths were due to suffocation from fluffy bedding, toys or crib bumpers, or being placed face down on a bed or couch -- all considered unsafe sleep practices.

A minority of deaths was attributed to SIDS -- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome -- which is defined as an unexplained death of an otherwise healthy child.

St. Louis Police Sgt. Latricia Allen, who investigates baby deaths, said many moms are too tired to get out of bed to place the baby in a crib. "They fall asleep cradling the child," she said. "They are absolutely, totally devastated."

Some mothers opt not to use a crib, believing that sleeping with the baby will strengthen the mother-child bond. However, the child is at risk of being smothered or suffocated by the adult's body, said Dr. Robert Paschall, a child safety specialist at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

But anthropologist James McKenna, a University of Notre Dame researcher and expert on infant co-sleeping, said even in the face of these deaths, society must respect the often legitimate reasons why mothers sleep with their babies, especially when they are breastfeeding.

It's "a part of our humanity and cannot altogether be ignored or canceled out," McKenna, director of the university's Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, said in an e-mail.

Separate but attached sleeping beds may be a safer alternative, said McKenna, who recommends "educating parents what to avoid if they choose to bedshare."

Kristin Dow, 38, of Liberty, a bed-sharing parent of three, including a 5-week-old son, has two strategies. Sometimes, she places her son in a small crib designed to be pushed up against the mattress of her bed. That allows her to reach over and breast feed.

Other times, the baby sleeps with her and her husband.

She believes it enhances emotional bonding, but also makes breast-feeding easier.

"The No. 1 reason I co-sleep is because babies have tiny tummies and this perfect food (breast milk) is metabolized quickly," Dow said. "I don't want to be getting out of bed sitting in a cold room nursing my babies every 20 minutes."

She follows certain safety rules, such as not taking sedating medicines and being careful about bedding.

"If I was afraid, I wouldn't do it," she said. "I've taken time to be educated."

Velma Harris Walker, of the St. Louis-based nonprofit group SIDS Resources, works with parents of newborns. She says babies should be placed in cribs free of toys, stuffed animals, bumpers, pillows, even blankets.

All those items are for the benefit of adults, who find them cute, she said.

"What makes it cute is the baby inside," she said.

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