Los Angeles County officials Wednesday urged parents to avoid the increasingly popular practice of sleeping in the same bed as their infant children, calling the practice a "potentially lethal act."
County statistics released Wednesday show that 44 infants died after they slept next to an adult in 2006, a 76% increase over the previous year. It was the county's highest number of deaths ever associated with "co-sleeping," the practice of sleeping in the same bed, couch or chair with an infant.
"These are tiny infants, who, someone, perhaps well-intentioned, took to bed with them . . . and they wake up and the child is not breathing," said Deanne Tilton Durfee, director of the Los Angeles County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.
"We know the value of holding your child, cuddling your child, loving your child. But if you take the baby to bed with you and fall asleep, you are committing a potentially lethal act," she said.
The pronouncement was criticized by some who have promoted the benefits of parents sharing their bed with infant children, and say it's easier to breast-feed and console a crying infant.
"New parents have to do what they have to do to get to sleep," said Karen Zeretzke, who has been a longtime leader with La Leche League International, which provides information and support to breast-feeding mothers.
The group does not have an official position on whether to recommend co-sleeping to mothers, "but what we have found is that many mothers have found sleeping together facilitates breast-feeding," Zeretzke said.
Zeretzke said co-sleeping was essential in her household.
"Bringing the babies to bed let the entire family sleep peacefully," she said.
The issue of co-sleeping has attracted controversy in recent years, as the practice has become more popular.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and researchers say that bed-sharing leaves babies vulnerable to being crushed or suffocated, and may increase their risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
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.
The statement pointed to one study 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.
The organization's policy statement has generated controversy among some doctors. The academy's breast-feeding panel wrote a letter to the journal Pediatrics saying bed-sharing under safe conditions may be important to breast-feeding.
Co-sleeping has become popular among some mothers who say the practice allows both mother and infant to sleep through feedings.
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. Of those polled from 1993 through 2000, nearly 45% shared their beds with infants occasionally.
The practice also was highlighted in an article about Jennifer Lopez's newborn twins in the March 31 issue of People magazine, which said, "Although the babies have ornate cribs, Jennifer and Marc often take them to bed."
Dr. Bob Sears, an Orange County pediatrician who co-wrote "The Baby Sleep Book," said some co-sleeping can be unsafe, but disagreed with the blanket statement that the practice is unsafe all the time.
"So many babies sleep so much better nestled up to a parent that many parents are doing it to get a better night's sleep," he said. "Parents aren't going to stop doing it just because the government tells them what kind of parent they should be."
Los Angeles County officials say, however, that the practice has led to some tragedies.
Patricia Ploehn, director of the county Department of Children and Family Services, recalled a case in 2006 in which a father sitting on a chair fell asleep with his infant child sleeping on his chest; he awoke to find that the infant had slipped in between the armrest and seat cushion and died.
"It's just disturbing," she said. "It's broken the hearts of so many parents."
Some of the co-sleeping deaths were connected with parents who were under the influence of drugs, but others were not, Ploehn said. "In those first few weeks" after a child is born, she said, "they are exhausted."