The government tells you how hot to cook your pork chops. It tells you to wear a helmet when you ride a bike and not let your hair stream in the breeze. It tells you to stop eating rare hamburger. It tells you when to get your furnace serviced, for how many months to place your baby's car seat facing backward, and not to put raw egg in your Caesar salad dressing.
Sometimes you listen, sometimes you don't. Then, this past Wednesday, the government--in the form of the Consumer Product Safety Commission--told parents not to sleep in the same bed with their babies. Some people feel the Federal Nanny has gone too far.
Citing a study that reported 121 infant deaths over an eight-year period due to "overlaying"--an instance in which a parent, caregiver or sibling accidentally suffocated a baby while both were sleeping in an adult bed--the CPSC issued a strong warning against allowing children younger than 2 years old to sleep in bed with their parents. The CPSC statement prompted an immediate backlash from doctors who support "co-sleeping," breast-feeding advocates and anthropologists who noted that parents sleeping with their babies is considered the norm in most societies in the world.
Mostly, though, it got parents riled. Parents who are angry at the CPSC for telling them what to do in their own bedrooms, with their own children. Parents who find it almost unfathomable--and quite horrifying--that a baby could possibly be killed simply by sleeping next to its mother. And parents who, just as the CPSC had hoped, are now wondering how to weigh the benefits of sleeping with their babies against the risks that have been put to them.
"We knew that this was something that would be controversial," says Ann Brown, chairman of the CPSC. "However, it would have seemed absolutely criminal to have this kind of important data that parents need to know and to have shied away from it because we were afraid of controversy. This is not the kind of information that can be or should be withheld." Brown stressed yesterday that what the CPSC put out on Wednesday was simply "information"--not an edict, not a law. "We're not going to be coming into people's bedrooms, snatching their babies out of beds," she says. "That's not what this is."
It was upsetting, nonetheless. No topic seems to get parents of small babies more worked up than that of sleep--that elusive state all new parents desperately seek both for themselves and their children. Take Jill Jarusiewicz and her husband, Mike. They have a 15-month-old son and another child on the way. She gets up for work at 4:30 a.m. He gets up at 6 a.m. And if little Michael wakes up in the middle of the night? Well, he's taken out of his crib and into their bed in an instant. In part because it's easier--he goes right back to sleep in their bed and doesn't require 30 minutes of rocking and soothing. And in part because it's nice to have him close after being away at work most of the day.
The CPSC "is supposed to be talking about safety concerning products," says Jarusiewicz. "Sleeping with your child is not a product. It has nothing to do with how far apart the slats of the crib are. It's a pretty harsh statement."
Not surprisingly, Tine Thevenin agrees. Thevenin is the author of "The Family Bed," a book that advocates "co-sleeping."
"It's a knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy when what we should be doing is addressing the tragedy and how to prevent it," Thevenin says. "You don't need a blanket statement that children should not sleep with their parents, which is so incredibly narrow-minded.
"In a global situation, children have always slept with their parents," Thevenin continues. "To say now that children should not sleep with their parents--I think that's an indication of people who have not breast-fed and slept with their children, and I'm afraid that that is the group that is now posing as experts and they shouldn't be because they are not."
For the record, the CPSC's Brown says she has two children (now grown), and they never slept in her bed. Marilyn Wind, one of the authors of the study, also has two grown children, who didn't sleep in her bed.
"Knowing what I know now, I think I made a wise choice," Wind said yesterday.
Other parents don't see it that way. Marcia Fatoki, a Mitchellsville, Md., mother of two, the youngest a 4-month-old girl, likes to have her daughter Diamond in bed with her. The risks seem minimal compared with the advantages.
"I think it's good for them--it's extra nurturing," she says. "They feel safer. They're more calm when they're in the bed with us. You can see that they feel it. It must be a central feeling for a baby: This is Mom and Dad, and I feel really good right here."
Sharon Salmon-Rowe agrees. "I don't understand how a mother can roll over on her own child and not know it," says the mother of two, the youngest a 4-month-old boy. "I just know he's there. My husband asks me sometimes, 'How do you hear all those little sounds?' and I tell him I'm not a sound sleeper, not with the baby there."
But to McKenna and others, Wind responds with the death certificates of babies in her study: "mother rolled over decedent," "sleeping father, infant accidentally rolled over," "mother breast-feeding while asleep, infant suffocates." It is a horrifying litany.
"All we want to do is get people talking," Brown says. "We hope the parents talk to their pediatricians and make their own decisions about what's best for them."