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Sleep, baby. But ... where?

Despite suffocation dangers, the number of parents who sleep with their infants is growing.

September 18, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

New mother Melissa Gluck knows that it's risky to sleep in the same bed with newborns.

But after seven sleepless weeks of rousing herself from bed every few hours to nurse her crying baby, she relented. "I was falling asleep nursing," says Gluck, 32, of La Canada Flintridge. So she put Owen in bed with her. He slept longer between feedings, and she got more rest.

Then, several weeks ago, Gluck heard about a newborn's apparent suffocation in Torrance after sleeping with his teenage parents on the same bed -- in a hospital, no less. That night, Owen was back in the bassinet.

In a matter of hours, though, he was again snuggled up near his mom, who says she was unable to sleep without his breath on her cheek.

"It's hard to decide what to do," Gluck said.

As in so many matters of child-rearing, the decision to bed share is a highly personal, often controversial, topic. It's also increasingly common.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and researchers who study infant deaths say bed sharing leaves babies vulnerable to being crushed or suffocated and may increase their risk for sudden infant death syndrome, especially if the mother is a smoker.

The safest place for infants to sleep is in the same room as the mother but in their own crib, bassinet or cradle, the organization says. A policy statement to that effect was published in the November 2005 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

In advising against bed sharing, the policy statement pointed to numerous studies supporting its case, including one showing that nearly half of 119 infants who died suddenly and unexpectedly during a four-year period in the St. Louis area did so while sleeping with someone else.

In the Torrance death, tiny Carlos Franco was found dead between his parents only hours after a midnight feeding. His father had apparently placed the child on a pillow on his chest and fallen asleep, with the child's mother beside him. He lived less than a day.

"The epidemiological studies suggest bed sharing is unsafe," said Dr. Thomas Keens, a pediatrics professor at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles and at USC. "The risk, statistically, is higher for SIDS if you bed share than if you don't," although the causes of the syndrome are unknown.

But some parents, as well as some doctors and advocates of breast-feeding, insist that sharing a bed encourages breast-feeding, calms babies, promotes bonding and allows new mothers and fathers a little more coveted shut-eye.

"Think of any other mammal in the night; they all sleep with their young and nurse," said Katy Lebbing, who manages the breast-feeding information center at La Leche League International, the world's largest support group for breast-feeding mothers. "Our lives are just easier when we follow the management techniques of other mammals."

Whatever public health officials may say, the practice of bed sharing has been growing in the United States. A survey of nearly 8,500 people found that 12.8% of infants regularly shared an adult bed at night in 2000, more than double the percentage in 1993, according to a government study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Nearly 45% of those polled over the eight years shared their beds with infants occasionally.

For some mothers, particularly those who are breast-feeding, bed sharing is just easier and more comfortable. Once the infant latches on, both mother and baby can even sleep through the feeding.

"If the baby starts crying, you're right there," said Jennie-Marie Mahalick, 28, who was attending a Mommy and Me yoga class in Hollywood recently with her infant daughter, Marli. "I can just roll over to feed her."

"It makes for a more restful night for all of us," added Marguerita Mees, 32, of North Hollywood, a yoga classmate of Mahalick's. She shares her bed not only with her husband and 8-month-old daughter, Fiona, but also with her 3-year-old daughter, Forrest. "It just feels right."

Doctors themselves sometimes disagree about what's best. In a measure of how contentious this issue can be, a panel of experts on breast-feeding for the American Academy of Pediatrics sharply disputed the organization's recommendation against sleeping with infants.

"Bed sharing under safe conditions may prove to be an important factor in the success of breast-feeding," the panel wrote in a letter to Pediatrics, noting that breast-feeding itself has been associated with reduced infant mortality.

The warning, panel members wrote, "may increase maternal anxiety about this practice and reduce breast-feeding duration."

Other studies have suggested that bed sharing results in more maternal touching and attention, and some parents believe this perhaps leads to greater self-esteem and self-discipline in adulthood.

Anthropologists note that bed sharing is common in many other cultures -- for instance, in many Asian and Latin American countries.

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