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Texas Takes Neutral Look at "Cosleeping" Deaths

newspapersI think it’s been years since I’ve read a mainstream news story on cosleeping that didn’t make me want to start cursing at the screen. It has sometimes seemed like every couple weeks there is an over-simplified alarmist story in another regional daily, taken uncritically from a public health agency’s press materials. They usually go like this: “Babies sometimes die in adult beds! It must be the adult beds/adults who did it! Don’t sleep with your baby!” (Imagine if we said the same about cribs. . .)

So I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the report in the Houston Chronicle titled “‘Cosleeping’ Deaths Scrutinized“—and by the research it was based on.

The report isn’t definitive and certainly could still use better data, but at least it was asking the right question: What else was going on? Had whoever was sleeping with the infant used alcohol or drugs before going to bed? Had the child been ill recently? Were there blankets and pillows near the baby’s mouth? (Quite often yes to all of the above.)

In a welcome break from recent tradition, the researchers and writer are clear about what this doesn’t mean: “The agency’s review of Child Protective Services data did not establish any stronger proof that co-sleeping caused their deaths. . . .  The available data did not allow establishing a causal link.” (This goes along with a large study in the UK last year that found no increased risk from cosleeping itself.)

But the Texas data did point to some useful ways forward in terms of sleep safety: Given that pillows and blankets seemed to be a culprit in 70 percent of cases, it would seem that some education about how prepare a safe bed for an infant to sleep in would go a lot farther than constantly harping about the possibility of rollovers, for example.

The other major findings were that the deaths were more common among poor, minority, and CPS-involved families. This doesn’t strike me as surprising—those are the families more likely to have other risk factors. I wouldn’t have highlighted those results in the headline myself, but I blame that on the copy editor who wrote the headline, not the writer, who was doing a pretty diligent job of trying to zero in on what the research says about causes. I hope that these investigators keep up the good work, some good public health policies come from it, and some other states follow suit.

Photo CC DRB62 via Flickr.

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