Early this month, in what can only be described as a total loss of rational thought, Milwaukee city officials unveiled a new 100% anti co-sleeping, “safe-sleep” advertising campaign. The campaign consists of ads containing adorable little babies sleeping alongside shiny butcher knives, and the tagline, “Your baby sleeping with you can be just as dangerous.” Seriously? Moments before the ad campaign launched, the Milwaukee medical examiner’s office announced that a 7-week-old baby had been found dead in Milwaukee “After co-sleeping.” According to reports, the baby was the ninth Milwaukee baby to die in 2011 while in an unsafe sleep environment. Mayor Tom Barrett, who received the news of the death right before the launch of the campaign, noted that the ad is not too shocking because it may take a “Raw message to get the point across that babies must sleep alone, on their backs, in their own cribs.” Barrett went on to say that, “Co-sleeping deaths are the most preventable form of infant death in this community.” It’s extremely sad news that nine babies have died in this community. However, co-sleeping alone cannot be attributed to sleep-related baby deaths, which is what this campaign would have you believe.

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No Proof that Co-sleeping Causes SIDS

According to the City of Milwaukee Health Department, in Milwaukee around 20% of infant deaths are attributable to a combination of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)  and Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy (SUDI). The Health Department goes on to say that, “Of these deaths the majority die in an unsafe sleep environment.” This new campaign is linking co-sleeping to a reduced risk of SIDS which is irresponsible and wrong. For one thing, although SIDS is less murky than years ago, no research yet has been able to prove for sure what causes SIDS. Most research says that SIDS deaths likely happen due to a combination of physical and sleep environmental factors, but again, we aren’t positive. Co-sleeping has been linked to SIDS in terms of “unsafe sleep environments” but research points out that there are many physical factors associated with SIDS deaths as well, including brain abnormalities, low birth weight, respiratory infections and other health issues.

Government figures report about 2,000 SIDS deaths per year and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports an average of 64 baby deaths per year that can be attributed to co-sleeping. Those figures tell us that less than 4% of those SIDS deaths could even possibly be linked to co-sleeping. However, be very aware that almost all of these reported co-sleeping deaths were linked to unsafe co-sleeping practices, not co-sleeping in general or SIDS. That said, it’s unreasonable to say that SIDS and co-sleeping are absolutely linked.

In fact, in many Asian cultures co-sleeping is the norm, almost across the board, and these Asian families have significantly lower rates of SIDS deaths than American or European families who place their babies in cribs more often. Additionally, research shows that Asian families who begin to acclimate to western non-co-sleeping ways have SIDS rates that are far higher than other, more traditional Asian families. Research also shows that breastfed babies are less likely to die of SIDS, which supports co-sleeping as co-sleeping mamas are more likely to breastfeed. Plenty of other research shows that co-sleeping is not only healthy for children, but also that co-sleeping actually may help reduce the risk of SIDS not enhance risks.

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Photo © Flickr user iandeth

Unsafe Sleep Practices Are at Fault When a Baby Dies – Not Co-sleeping

Often news stories and sleep campaigns spout off about babies dying while co-sleeping. However, these stories never properly distinguish between safe and unsafe co-sleeping practices or consider external factors. For example, Milwaukee has a high poverty rate. Studies show that there is a direct link between poverty, lack of maternal education, lack of adequate prenatal care and infant death. Some parents who are co-sleeping, haven’t in fact, researched safe co-sleeping, they’re simply co-sleeping because they lack money for a crib and have no choice, thereby perhaps not co-sleeping as safely as they could be.

These unsafe co-sleeping stories also promote cribs over co-sleeping as a safe option, which is insane. Since 2007 CPSC has recalled more than 11 million dangerous cribs. Drop-side rails cribs alone were associated with at least 32 infant suffocation and strangulation deaths since 2000, although additional deaths have occurred due to faulty or defective hardware. Before crib awareness became a public issue, it’s estimated that about 100 babies died annually due to unsafe crib situations. Furthermore, even with safer cribs, around 9,500 to 10,000 U.S. babies and toddlers are hurt in cribs, playpens and bassinets each year.

It would appear that unsafe sleep practices in general, along with faulty sleep gear is the danger, not co-sleeping. Co-sleeping should be about awareness not bans, scare tactics and shocking photography. Parents have been co-sleeping with their children for centuries. What this country needs is a healthy campaign that focuses on how to co-sleep safely, not a campaign that arbitrarily eliminates co-sleeping as a viable option. 1,045 parents (and counting) have signed a new Change.org petition urging Milwaukee health-department officials to remove the fear mongering co-sleeping ads. If you disagree with this campaign, sign the petition.