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Co-Sleeping, Not Nursing, Blamed for Baby’s In-Flight Death

By Madeline Holler |

united-airlines-baby-smothered-in-flight-breastfeeding-cosleeping1An Egyptian mother, in flight from Washington, D.C., to Kuwait, awoke from a nap to make a horrifying discovery: her four-week-old was dead. Even worse, the baby girl had suffocated while in her mother’s arms.

Early reports blamed breastfeeding, but today experts are rushing to say breastfeeding had nothing to do with the child’s death.

Instead, they say that co-sleeping is responsible for suffocating the girl.


“The issue is not breastfeeding, it is co-bedding,” says Dr. Ronald Cohen, director of the Intermediate and Special Care Nurseries at Packard’s Children’s Hospital in Stanford, Calif.

“You can fall asleep in bed with a child after breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or just plain snuggling… [and] accidental smothering during co-bedding is a major concern of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other [organizations] nationally and internationally — we advise against it strongly,” he adds.

I’d argue that “co-bedding” had nothing to do with it and that Dr. Cohen is generalizing this instance of suffocation while co-sleeping to hammer us with the AAP’s overly rigid recommendation to never ever share a bed with a baby.

Rather, this mother — who must have been exhausted to fall asleep deeply enough to not realize she was suffocating her baby — was in a cramped space with nowhere to put her baby except in her lap. Also, she had no privacy while nursing her baby, so she likely covered the child with a blanket. My guess is the  mother was also desperate to keep the child from crying, for fear of disturbing the other passengers (who we know aren’t, as a group, charitable to mothers traveling with little ones). Airlines often provide “cribs” which fit on the floor space in front of you. But the floor is so loud and rumbling that this set-up may not have been a workable solution.

What happened is so sad and heartbreaking and, of course, had nothing to do with breastfeeding or falling asleep while sitting upright and breastfeeding, which isn’t fabulous but is certainly common. Babies’ noses are cute and pig-like to prevent suffocation-by-boob. The death also had nothing to do with co-sleeping in a bed, which, when done without drugged up or drunk bed-sharers — and horizontally, not while sitting up in some kind of chair, is safe. Instead, the child was accidentally smothered because she and the mother were sleeping in a far riskier position.


Part of the issue, says Dr. Miriam Labbock, director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute, is that “we give only over-simplistic messages” about sleeping with your infant, advising against it altogether despite the fact that in some situations, such as onboard a flight, it can be unavoidable.

“There has been so much media about the risks of co-sleeping…but no one is covering how to sleep safely when you are not in those situations,” she says, “[so] moms have to make due when reality and personal decisions are in conflict with the single recommendation…and sometimes, the choices are not well informed.”

After the mother discovered her baby wasn’t responding, a doctor among the passengers tried to revive the infant. The plane was diverted to London’s Heathrow Airport, where the child was pronounced dead.

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Photo: Daily Telegraph

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Co-Sleeping, Not Nursing, Blamed for Baby’s In-Flight Death

  1. Voice of Reason says:

    What this mother should have done, and what I’ve personally done, is buy a seat for the child and brought an infant car seat along to install in it. She could’ve nursed her baby and then put it to sleep — safely! — in its own seat.

  2. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    With all the crib recalls out there, I’ll put my money on co-sleeping as safer for my child.

  3. PlumbLucky says:

    A crib that you put in front of your seat on an airplane? How does THAT work, as I wind up sitting cuckoo legged to avoid cranking my knees on the seat in front of me?

    Poor woman, such a sad, sad story

  4. Ri-chan says:

    I feel so sad for her that, when she woke up and discovered her child dead, she was forced to expose her grief to a planefull of complete strangers.

  5. Really? says:

    Why was my comment about using an infant car seat on the plane deleted?

  6. james says:

    a 4 week old baby should not have been on a flight in the first place

    stop blaming the airline, it is definitely the mother’s fault

  7. cheri says:

    That is so stupid, that is not cosleeping! Where is the bed? Falling asleep in a flipping airplane is not cosleeping anymore than falling asleep behind the wheel of a car would be. Damn people just keep TRYING to skew the data.

  8. Mommygoingonaplane says:

    How sad!!!!! Why did I encounter this article after I booked an overnight flight of 8 hours in which I’ll be sitting with my 7 month old?!!! I hope I don’t fall asleep so deeply that something tragic could happen. This woman’s ordeal has to be a lesson to all moms.

  9. Guajolote says:

    That poor mother. I cannot imagine making such a trip so soon after birth of the kid. She must have been exhausted to the point of confusion, plus the stress of the trip, etc.

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