For decades, the foremost rule of family sleep, as promulgated by
mainstream American parenting experts, has been that infants and
children should never be allowed to sleep with their parents. Last week,
the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) even got in on the
act, warning us that the practice of parents sleeping with their
babies is inherently dangerous and should be avoided. After giving
birth to three children in six years, I can tell you that these
parenting police are way off the mark: the family bed is a sanity and
sleep saver
for mothers and babies.

In anthropological surveys of families around the world, researchers
have repeatedly noted that American and other western parents are
unique in their practice of placing infants in separate sleep spaces
rather than in a co-sleeping arrangement with one or both parents. In
most cultures, the idea of leaving a tiny baby alone in a bed with
bars, placed in a room separate from parents is considered as unsafe
and bizarre as if we left our napping baby alone to run out to the grocery store.

"... almost all human infants for the past million or so years have
slept in contact with an adult. And even today, in most places in the
world, infants spend their first year co-sleeping," writes
anthropologist Dr. Meredith Small in her best-selling book, Our Babies,
Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

In their statements to the press, officials from the CPSC -- a
government agency that generally reviews product safety rather than
cultural practices or parenting styles -- noted that in a review of
death certificates dating between 1990 and 1997, researchers found 515
instances of American infants who died of suffocation or strangulation
while sleeping in some type of "adult bed." What the CPSC failed to
note, however, is that more than 2,000 infants die each year while
asleep in cribs, bassinets, and cradles. In many cases, these babies
expire from the tragic and still poorly understood phenomenon of SIDS.
In other instances, infants are put to sleep in baby beds with unsafe,
outdated design features, or they suffocate from bedding that is too
soft or in which they become entangled. Yet no one from the government
has come forward to offer a sweeping conclusion that solitary sleeping
is de facto unsafe for babies and should always be avoided.

Perhaps not coincidentally, our solitary-sleeping American babies have
the highest rates of "crib death" in the world. Intriguing data from a
National Insitutes of Health researcher indicate that SIDS rates remain
low among communities of co-sleeping Asian families who immigrate to
the United States, but the number of deaths rises in relation to the
amount of time these families live here, possibly due to the adoption
of American-style customs such as crib-sleeping and bottle-feeding for
babies. Exclusive breastfeeding -- which has now been determined to
significantly lower an infant's statistical risk for SIDS, along with a
host of other potentially fatal maladies - is much more common among
mothers and babies who sleep together, in the United States and
elsewhere. Additionally, researchers have noted that breastfeeding,
co-sleeping infants tend to settle onto their backs or sides alongside
their mothers rather than ending up in the risky face-down sleep
position favored by many babies left to sleep by themselves.

In its recounting of the allegedly startling number of infant deaths
which took place in adult beds, the CPSC's own statistics revealed that
approximately 80% of the total number actually occurred as a result of
factors unrelated to the fact that the baby was sleeping with another
person. In these cases, babies were placed on bedding that was too
soft, leading to suffocation, or they became trapped face-down on
waterbeds, or wedged between a headboard and a mattress. Clearly,
unsafe, poorly designed sleeping arrangements in which this type of
fatal accident is liable to occur are inappropriate for infants,
whether an adult is sharing the bed with them or not. In the remaining
20% of cases -- translating to 121 deaths over a seven year period out
of 4 million live births in the U.S. annually -- at least some of the
deaths were attributable not to babies' parents, but to an unspecified
"caregiver" or sibling rolling on top of the babies. Again, families
who sleep with their babies should be -- and generally are -- aware
that young infants should only sleep beside a parent, usually a
breastfeeding mother. But the idea that these demonstrably unsafe
family bed arrangements are representative of the majority of
co-sleeping family situations in the U.S. is as absurd as claiming that
the existence of the occasional plane crash means that we should
abandon air travel altogether.

As parenting "experts" have attempted to dissuade American mothers from
sleeping with their babies in the past fifty years, a variety of
arguments have been made. Parents have been warned that co-sleeping
would ruin their marriages, create neurotic children, and now,
according to the CSPC announcement, that it is likely to literally kill
their infants. Yeah right. Personally, I’d prefer for the CPSC to stick
to warning us about things like exploding gas tanks and lead paint. I
have no need for them to come into my bedroom and advise me on how I
choose to raise my children.