Sleeping with your baby: Mainstream media gets it wrong

Recently, a journalist with NPR asked her audience if sleeping with your baby is as dangerous as doctors say.  In short, yes, it is very dangerous.

In the article, Michaeleen Doucleff repeatedly trivializes the danger of parents co-sleeping with their baby.  She uses anthropological evidence to reassure parents that sleeping with their infant is safe if parents don’t drink, smoke, or use illicit drugs.   She makes light of this country’s infant mortality rate, which is one of the worst in the developed world.  She points to mothers of other cultures responding with “shock” when learning that American infants do not sleep in their parental bed to support her point of view.  She asserts that parents cannot be truthful about bed-sharing with their pediatricians because they are too judgmental.  She even goes so far as to provide tips for “safe bed-sharing,” which she appears to attribute to the AAP.

However, the AAP has never condoned bed-sharing.  The AAP stands firmly behind the Safe Sleep campaign, which guides parents to put their infant to sleep Alone, on their Back, and in their Crib for every sleep.  Following these ABC’s of safe sleep has helped reduced the nation’s infant mortality rate by preventing many sleep-related deaths.  While the AAP endorses room-sharing with infants to increase bonding and the ease of breastfeeding, they continue to recommend avoiding bed-sharing to prevent accidental asphyxiation.

Ms. Doucleff paints a reassuring picture that if parents do not drink or do illicit drugs, their instincts will protect their baby.  However, what Ms. Doucleff fails to mention is the overwhelming fatigue that many parents face; this can be just as altering as being under the influence of an illicit drug.  No parent should take the risk of rolling over on their infant only to wake to find their infant no longer breathing.

Pediatricians do not tell parents to avoid bedsharing for judgmental reasons – they do it to save children’s lives from preventable deaths.  Bed sharing increases a child’s risk of sleep-related deaths by three times.  As someone that may have never seen an infant die from a sleep-related death, Ms. Doucleff may feel reassured by the relatively low risk of suffocation caused by bed-sharing.  However, the parents that have experienced their infant’s death will not find solace in knowing that their risk for this was low.  By giving parents advice about how to raise healthy children, Ms. Doucleff is taking the place of a pediatrician.  However, she does not have any medical training or experience to back up her assertations.  Parents may take her at her word, especially as her article appears to cite the AAP.

As doctors, it is our duty to offer patients evidence-based medical advice.  It is dangerous for journalists without medical training to offer advice that may have negative impact on the health of our patients.  We must do our part to speak out against dangerous or wrong information.  Popular news media like NPR has the opportunity to reach many more patients or parents than physicians do during a day in the office.  This is why we must be vigilant to correct misinformation in order to advocate for our patients, both through traditional and nontraditional avenues.  We cannot prevent articles like this dangerous NPR article from being published, but we can fight it with correct information.

Karen Allen is a pediatrics resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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