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We need to rethink whether co-sleeping with a baby is wise.

co-sleeping
In NSW 25 babies died last year while sharing a bed.

I admit that I have done it.

I’m almost scared to admit that.

So many excuses as to why.

So many justifications when I, as a journalist had read the data and knew the information.

But still I did it.

And now I confess to you.

Why did I do it? I was tired.

Simple.

It made my life easier.

Simpler.

It let me get through the day.

And with a newborn baby ANYTHING that gets you through the day – you take.

So I did it – I co-slept.

I clearly remember the first time. I was in hospital with my first-born son and I nodded off in the chair breastfeeding, I woke with a start several hours later terrified I had smothered my two-day-old son.

The midwives castigated me. I felt terrible… and yet weeks later it happened again. I didn’t mean it to. My son was feeding two hourly. He was underweight and jaundice.

So many excuses.

It wasn’t a conscious decision – it wasn’t even a deliberate ‘parenting’ style. It just happened.

Last year an article on Mamamia about co-sleeping caused great controversy for its inherent message that co-sleeping was more for the mother than the baby.

When I think back –  co-sleeping WAS about me.

But I also think that keeping me sane was probably a fairly important part of parenting three small children.

co-sleeping
80% of babies spent some time co-sleeping in the first 6 months of life
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Six babies died last year in NSW after their mother accidentally suffocated them while sleeping or breastfeeding.

These incidents largely occurred due to smoking, alcohol and drug use along with unsafe adult sleeping environments.

However they were among 25 babies who died while sharing a bed with either their mother or father.

Whilst the science surrounding co-sleeping can be unclear, one Australian study found that 80% of babies spent some time co-sleeping in the first 6 months of life.

The NSW figures follow on from some released in November for the ACT showing that 14 babies had died due to unsafe sleeping practices over the last decade.

And in October the New South Wales Child Death Review team’s annual report, found that 44 per cent of the 480 infants that died suddenly and unexpectedly in NSW since 2003 were infants that were co-sleeping.

The NSW report found that “there is evidence to suggest that over 90 per cent of sudden and unexpected deaths in infancy are associated with preventable risk factors.”.

It seems finally that these figures are being taken seriously with news over the weekend that in NSW caseworkers from the Department of Community Services are examining people’s sleeping arrangements to see whether or not they co-slept.

co-sleeping
Six babies died after their mother accidentally suffocated them
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In instances where they thought there might be a danger the Department are providing cots.

News Limited report that the figures reveal that of the 25 deaths last year, the parents of 16 admitted to sleeping next to the child, while another six said the mother fell asleep while breastfeeding or trying to settle the baby.

NSW Deputy State Coroner Sharon Freund warned parents in March about the dangers of co-sleeping following the death of nine-day-old Jaylea Thompson.

Her mother wept as the Coroner gave her findings: “accidental asphyxiation as a result of being held in the crook of her mother’s right arm as they slept together throughout the night.”

Jamie-Lee Signato described how she cradled her baby in her arm after an early morning feed on the couch.

Half an hour later she woke to find her baby, Jaylea, blue in the face and unresponsive.

The nine-day old was dead.

In 2012 the Victorian coroner weighed into the co-sleeping debate, criticising the inconsistent advice that parents get about babies sleeping in the same bed as their parents.

The coroner was looking into the deaths of four babies aged between 10 weeks and five months. All were the victims of sudden infant death syndrome, and all were in bed with at least one of their parents.

At the time researchers from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Mothers & Babies expressed their concerns about his findings.

QCMB Director Professor Sue Kruske said “It is not the act of bed sharing that is solely responsible for these deaths”.

“Rather it is other environmental factors that occur in combination with bed sharing.”

She said the vast majority of ‘co-sleeping deaths’ were in the context of other circumstances including smoking, alcohol and drug use and unsafe adult sleep environments.

“Prohibiting bed-sharing will actually lead to more harmful practices such as falling asleep with the baby on a couch, which is known to be dangerous, as well as increased cases of babies falling,” she said.

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SIDS and KIDS advise babies have their own safe sleeping place
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She said research showed many benefits for babies who bed-share safely with their parents, including improved breastfeeding duration rates, improved settling with reduced crying, more infant arousals which are protective for baby, and improved maternal sleep.

Whilst many co-sleeping advocates argue that it is a long held tradition in a variety of countries Dr Penny Gregory of the ACT Children and Young People Death Review Committee told the SMH that these countries with a history of apparently successful co-sleeping had very different sleeping arrangements from Australia.

These included the bed being low and on the floor, or a hard surface, no pillows, or only small firm pillows, which could not smother an infant accidently. Similarly, blankets and bedding are small and thin.

In August headlines around the world sent panic through the hearts of many parents with lines such as “Stop co-sleeping it WILL kill your baby.”

It was all in relation to a study from Birmingham City University which compiled data from five previous studies and examined nearly 1,500 cases of SIDS. It revealed that an estimated 88 per cent of deaths that occurred while a child slept with their parents would not have happened if the baby had not been bed-sharing.

However the Australian Breastfeeding Association still advise that co-sleeping is beneficial for breastfeeding mothers stating that:

“Further protecting her baby, a breastfeeding co-sleeping mother usually adopts a position that facilitates close physical contact and observation of her baby. She tends to keep her baby at the level of her breast with an arm between her baby’s head and the pillow. She also instinctively bends her legs completing the protective space around the baby, making it impossible for another person to roll onto the baby without first coming into contact with her legs. Studies show more frequent arousals in both mothers and babies when they co-sleep, and some researchers have suggested that this may be protective against sudden unexpected infant deaths.”

Their recommendation does not extend towards formula fed babies.

You can’t imagine a parent setting out to deliberately harm their baby but no wonder it is confusing for parents.

The science is unclear.

As Virginia Trioli wrote in 2012:

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.

There is so much information around, with so many conflicting areas of advice on what is best for new mothers and their babies.

The best we can do is to share the best advice we can find:

Six ways to reduce the risk of sudden unexpected death in infancy and sleep baby safely: from SIDS and Kids Australia

1. Sleep baby on the back from birth, not on the tummy or side

2. Sleep baby with head and face uncovered

3. Keep baby smoke free before birth and after

4. Provide a safe sleeping environment night and day

5. Sleep baby in their own safe sleeping place in the same room as an adult care-giver for the first six to twelve months

6. Breastfeed baby if you can.

Have you ever co-slept with your baby? Was it accidental or did you intend to? Will this latest data make you change your habits? 

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