Bed sharing and absolute advice

The front page of the Dom today has an article about a woman who has been convicted after her 10 week old baby died when sharing a bed with her.

The first time I shared a bed with the little dude he was 9 weeks old. He woke at about 6.30am and I brought him into bed with me to breastfeed him and we both fell back asleep. I woke up an hour or so later and was panicked that he had overheated because he was still in his sleeping bag. I freaked out that I’d fallen asleep. I was so terrified he might have gotten hurt. Took me ages to calm down.

At the six-month Plunket check up I asked the Plunket nurse when it starts being safe to bed share. My parents had me in their bed with them because in the 80s people did that and no-one was advised not to. Mum reckoned it helped them get more sleep. The Plunket nurse said “we really strongly advise against it for the whole of infancy” which was such useless advice right? What does “the whole of infancy” mean? Til they can walk? Til they can talk?

From about the time the little dude was 8 or 9 months until 15 months, he slept in our bed every day from 5am until 7am. He’d wake, I’d bring him in with us, he’d have a feed and go back to sleep and I would doze lightly next to him.

Earlier this week, the little dude woke crying at 3 am and then every 15 minutes until 4am when we brought him into our bed for the rest of the night. Molars? Ugh who knows.

The problem with absolute advice is that people don’t follow it. Like with pregnancy advice. I’m happy to not drink at all because it’s not gonna hurt me and I don’t find it that inconvenient, but when I’m told to not eat hummus or preprepared salads or shop-bought sandwiches, well, that’s ridiculous. I won’t be buying the end of the day egg salad discounted sammies, but I don’t have time to make my lunch every day and I’m fairly confident that my chances of getting listeria from a falafel kebab with lettuce and hummus are vanishingly small. Any food could be potentially contaminated, that’s the reality of modern food processing (if innocent frozen berries are making people sick, we’re a bit screwed right?) You can’t eliminate risk completely.

When advice is given in an absolute form, it runs contrary to how people actually live and think about risk.

I did heaps of google “research” on bed sharing, back when I was worried about when it starts being ok. It’s so convenient to just let the bub doze off on the breast and get an extra couple of hours sleep rather than get up and put bub back in the cot and maybe bub wakes up in the transition, and then boom you’re up for the day and it’s 5am, damn. Sleep is so fundamental, and there’s a phase when you want to do anything you can to get more of it.

I found out in my googling that there are some areas of heightened risk for sharing a bed with baby. For example, sharing a bed with the baby under the blankets is a significant suffocation risk, babies are much safer if they’re in a sleeping bag on top of the blankets. There are risk factors associated with the adults – smoking, high body weight, consumption of drugs or alcohol; and risk factors associated with the baby – low birth weight, premature, not yet rolling over unassisted, was exposed to drugs in utero. None of these factors are given any mention in the official advice, which just says that the baby should be in its own bed for every sleep.

And it’s frustrating because of course the last thing anyone wants to do is expose their baby to unnecessary or preventable risks, but blanket advice doesn’t enable parents to properly assess those risks.

The woman in the newspaper was a smoker and the baby was 10 weeks old, so bed sharing in that situation was actually extremely risky. But had she been told of the specific risks? Or had she just been given the general “don’t do this” advice? Because if it’s the latter, thousands upon thousands of parents, including me, ignore that advice to some degree.


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