Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Bed-sharing Not Dangerous for All

By Stephen Luntz

Public health messages telling mothers not to share their bed with young babies are being targeted too broadly, according to A/Prof Catherine Fetherston of Murdoch University. Indeed in some cases the advice could be counter-productive.

“Current policies are focused on risk elimination – ‘do not sleep with your baby because they might die’ – when really there is no research that shows an inherent risk for bed-sharing and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome,” Fetherston says.

While bed-sharing can be a risk factor under certain circumstances, Fetherston notes that a recent Alaskan study found that 99% of bed-sharing deaths occurred when the mother smoked or had been affected by alcohol or drugs. Fetherston argues that public health campaigns should focus on these known risk factors rather than on influencing low-risk mothers.

Fetherston says that warnings against bed-sharing could backfire when mothers do not have other risk factors. “At night, mothers will do anything to get their babies to sleep. They’ve been told not to take them to bed with them, so they nurse them on the sofa or in an armchair. Then the baby goes to sleep and the mother nods off.”

This is really dangerous, Fetherston says, because babies can get caught between a parent and the sides of a sofa or chair. Deaths from these cases are sometimes included in bed-sharing death data.

“In fact, when you remove deaths associated with sofa-sharing or armchair-sharing, the rate of bed-sharing deaths is lower than the rate found in babies sleeping by themselves in cots,” Fetherston says.

This should not be surprising because breast-feeding and bed-sharing, which often go together, increase oxygen saturation and heart rhythm stability. One study found these benefits for bed-sharing even when compared with breast-fed babies that slept in cots.

Fetherston warns that even where drugs or tobacco are not an issue parents should not keep children in beds that are overly soft or also shared with siblings or pets.

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