Jennifer Combs has made it her mission to end co-sleeping in Broward County, FL. Combs is a nurse who studies ways to prevent infant deaths, and she says out of 45 baby deaths in 2009, six “were sleep-related but had been called something else.” The Sun Sentinel (via the LA Times) notes that, “Added to nine already identified, that made 15 babies dead from unsafe sleep – or one in three. The standard estimate has been one in five.”
Combs is researching infant deaths in Broward County dating back to 2006 “to get firmer numbers to report at an infant mortality conference in September.” She sees a pattern of unreported sleep deaths and wants to be sure adults put babies to bed on their backs in their own cribs, emptying the crib of all soft items. Dr. Khalil Wardak, a Broward County medical examiner who handles infant deaths, says parents know the risks of co-sleeping, but they ignore them. “Older family members slept with their parents and their babies, and they came out OK, so they think it’s OK,” he says. “But it’s not.”
In response to critics of co-sleeping, Linda Smith, founder of the International Lactation Consultant Association, says, “The risks of co-sleeping decline if the mother is breastfeeding, sober, not a smoker and sleeps with the baby on a flat, safe surface free of soft items.” Indeed, alcohol and other substances often play a role in co-sleeping deaths. A Sunrise, FL father is currently “serving 25 months in state prison for manslaughter for rolling on top of his 7-month-old daughter and smothering her in his bed in 2009, after an all-night session of video games and marijuana.”
Combs notes that hospital maternity wards often set bad examples for new parents by putting babies to sleep “unsafely on their sides or stomachs, or with blankets or stuffed animals in the crib.” Combs maintains that anyone who practiced co-sleeping without losing an infant is “lucky.” She says, “You may have slept with your baby and it was fine, but you were lucky. Things are different now. Parents are obese, they use [sleeping pills], they use drugs. Back then, we didn’t have pillow-top beds, tons of pillows and blankets. Co-sleeping is just not safe. We have too many risks.”
Sometimes I think any of us who successfully raise children are lucky. I certainly put my daughter in bed with me, both as an infant who was breastfeeding and as a screaming toddler who couldn’t sleep on her own. I’m sure some nights I’d had a couple of glasses of wine. Twice, when my daughter was a year old, she rolled out of bed and fell on the floor. She’s fine. I’m not advocating purposely taking risks, but I think over the course of the insanity that is raising a child during the first let’s say four years of its life, every parent or child is going to do something at some point that will render the child “lucky” to have survived it. (For example, my niece fell down an entire flight of stairs when she was 3. It was terrifying for those who witnessed it, but she came out unharmed.) What’s worse? Sleeping with a wailing baby so that you can get some sleep, or letting them cry it out and getting up after a night of lying awake so sleep deprived that on your way to work you forget your child is in the car seat and leave him or her baking in the hot sun? Not to say that disaster is inevitable, I’m just saying, babies are fragile and raising them can be risky business. Every parent does his or her best to make decisions to mitigate the potential for disaster. Not to mention that we’re all exhausted, which doesn’t make doing the right thing all the time any easier.
Do Combs’ findings change your opinion about co-sleeping? Did you do it and would you do it again?