WASHINGTON — Federal safety officials, citing new evidence that infants who sleep with their parents are at high risk of suffocating, on Wednesday issued a strong warning against putting babies younger than 2 years old to sleep in adult beds.
The study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission immediately sparked a controversy over the increasingly popular trend of “co-sleeping,” in which parents share their beds with their newborns. A number of prominent pediatricians, including William Sears, author of the bestselling “The Baby Book,” encourage co-sleeping as a way to promote breast-feeding and increase bonding between parent and child.
Co-sleeping accounts for about 15 deaths a year — 23 percent of the average 64 deaths that occur annually when infants, 2 years and younger, are placed to sleep on adult beds, the CPSC study found. Most of the remaining deaths are caused by the children getting their heads stuck in parts of the bed or covers.
“There is some evidence to suggest that the practice [of co-sleeping] may introduce a hazard of death by overlying” with a parent rolling on top of, or next to the baby, and smothering him or her, said the CPSC study, which was based on a review of death certificates from 1990 through 1997. Of the certificates that clearly specified “overlying” as the cause, some had added notations, such as “sleeping mother overlay child’s body,” “found under parent,” “accidentally rolled over by mother” and “fell asleep while nursing.”
The findings show that “an adult bed is a dangerous place for a baby,” said CPSC Chairman Ann Brown. “The only safe place for babies is in a crib that meets current safety standards and has a firm, tight-fitting mattress. Place babies to sleep on their backs and remove all soft bedding, pillows and stuffed animals.”
The agency is not against breast-feeding or bonding, she said. But “the dangers of co-sleeping far outweigh the extra bit of bonding that may occur in bed,” she said. She urged parents who want to sleep with their babies to put a crib or bassinet “right next to their bed” to get the “benefits of bonding and breast-feeding with all the protection.”
Federal health officials said a study of a recent two-week period found that half of all infants spend at least some part of the night in an adult bed. About one in six parents said their babies spent half or more of their sleeping time on an adult bed or mattress.
Even before the study was released by the American Medical Association, which is publishing the results in its October issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, co-sleeping proponents criticized the CPSC’s recommendation against bed sharing.
“The recommendation intrudes into the personal lives of all of us … [and] negatively impacts [affects] the natural rights of parents to experience their infants and children the way they choose,” said James J. McKenna, a biological anthropologist who has done extensive studies in bed sharing and is one of its strongest proponents, saying it promotes breast-feeding and reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. McKenna said the CPSC’s conclusions were based on incomplete and anecdotal evidence and ignores studies that show that “even in the deepest stages of their sleep, mothers respond within seconds to a strange noise, sudden movement, grunt or cough of their co-sleeping infant.”