They are words I don’t even want to write: the waking nightmare of finding your baby cold and unresponsive in the bed with you.
The State Coroner’s recent finding on co-sleeping – sharing a sleeping surface with a newborn or infant – was a bombshell, and has created an awful conundrum for those who believe, or have been told, co-sleeping is actually one of the best things you can do for your young child. After investigating four cases of babies who died after sleeping with their parents, John Olle said the practice was “inherently dangerous” and that babies less than 12 months old should sleep on their backs in their own cots.
The messages on this issue are now so completely mixed that nightfall must create an environment of anxiety, if not panic, for many families across the country: just where should baby sleep?
Parents are now offered, by so many different health professionals, completely contradictory interpretations of the dangers/benefits of co-sleeping. One GP I know, who happily co-slept with all her children, cites recent research that demonstrates the practice actually prevents sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), because the child is aware of the presence of the mother, thereby reducing the possibility of sleep apnoea incidents. The other side of the story you know all too well: you can roll on them, the blankets or pillows can suffocate them, and they can slip between wall and bed, between mother and father.
I have no idea any more which way of sleeping is better, but I have a sneaking suspicion that even in early infancy the child instinctively knows what will keep her safe. Some babies just won’t or don’t sleep with their parents – they settle only in their own space, no matter how much the parents might yearn for co-sleeping. Some high-needs babies – usually struggling with issues such as reflux, colic or other conditions – need the proximity and cling to their parents, at least in the earlier days. Who is to say that they are not acting out of a basic need to be kept close and safe? And we all know that once the kids hit their toddler years and beyond, they are in and out of your bed for all sorts of reasons, real and imagined.
But I think we need to be honest with ourselves about one factor, and that is the need of the mother – and it is mostly the mother – to sleep with her child. The less-analysed side of what is now called “attachment parenting” (kind of like demand-feeding but for every aspect of the baby’s life) is the desire of the mother to be attached, not necessarily the child. Is the argument about how good co-sleeping is for “bonding” an argument about the child’s need, or the parent’s? If love and support is provided at all other times, is it really also needed at sleeping time?
One fact that can’t be overlooked, and that potentially takes some of the heat out of this issue, is that SIDS deaths in Victoria are now at their lowest levels. The education campaigns have worked, and while even one baby’s death is of course too many, as a community we are far more aware of the dangers of smoking, alcohol, drug taking and overheated beds when it comes to babies. And while it might seem counter-intuitive to argue that the loving presence of parents can be harmful to the sleeping child, if we know that they can be safe in their own space – albeit just an arm’s length away from us – perhaps we can accept that the baby can bear to be without us for just a few, crucial hours.