Dangers of co-sleeping

There have been a rash of infant deaths In Milwaukee, all related to unsafe sleeping environments. The most recent victim was a 1-month-old girl recently found dead after spending the night sleeping in the same bed with an adult.

The girl was at least the 10th child to die in the area because of an unsafe sleeping environment. Most of those deaths involved suffocation and happened when the child shared a bed with an adult or older sibling.  Sleeping in bed with an infant can be dangerous for several reasons:

  • Risk of rolling over on top of the infant causing suffocation
  • Infant suffocating from soft bed clothing (pillows, comforter, loose sheets)
  • Infant suffocating when the head gets stuck between the mattress and the wall
  • Infant falling off the bed

In response to the deaths, Milwaukee health officials have released a controversial ad campaign, showing a sleeping baby snuggling up to a kitchen knife with these words:

“Those ads are pretty graphic, but they get your attention,” says Lois Lee, MD, MPH, an emergency medicine physician at Children’s Hospital Boston.  “I think these ads are effective in getting people’s attention to make them aware that infant deaths from co-sleeping are preventable.”

Lois Lee, MD, MPH
Lois Lee, MD, MPH

Lee also notes that co-sleeping (family members sharing a bed) is a very cultural and personal decision, but suggests that before parents decide whether or not co-sleeping is right for their family, they become aware of the facts. Studies show that there is a greater chance of infant death, mainly from suffocation, when infants share beds instead of sleeping alone in a bare crib.

To create a safe sleeping environment for your infant, Lee recommends the following:

  • Place the infant to sleep on their back. Side sleeping is not the recommended position, but if that is what the infant prefers, make sure to stretch forward the baby’s arm that touches the mattress. In doing so you provide a little extra balance to help prevent the infant from rolling onto their stomach.
  • Only use a crib that meets the standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This summer the sale of drop-side cribs was banned because of the associated risk of entrapment and death for infants.
  • Infants should not sleep on waterbeds, sofas and/or soft mattresses. Avoid soft materials in the infant sleep area. Pillows, quilts, comforters, sheepskins should not be placed under or around the sleeping infant.
  • Loose blankets and sheets are not recommended. Instead, use sleep clothing to keep the infant warm. These are like blankets, but usually have sleeves to put the infant’s arms through and they cover the feet and zip up to the neck.  This prevents any loose material from getting near the infant’s face.
  • If a blanket is going to be used, tuck it in all around the crib mattress and place the infant’s feet at this end of the bed, making sure the blanket only reaches up the infant’s chest.
  • Avoid overheating the infant. The room temperature should be comfortable for a lightly clothed adult.