Parents and infants should room together for one year after birth to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). That’s the latest recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—and it’s completely unreasonable.
When I first heard the news I felt irate and grave concern. For me, personally, the idea of sleeping for up to a year in the same room as my children when they were infants was downright frightening. As a light sleeper I know room sharing would mean that I would likely go 365 days sans solid rest. But as a family coach I know room sharing could have long-term negative unintended consequences that are not addressed in the recommendation.
Parents are subjected to a slew of suggestions on childrearing from experts. Breast is best. Cover outlets. Don’t leave infants unattended in the bath or on the changing table. Properly fasten children in car seats on all car trips. Avoid choking hazards. Address chipping paint and potential lead poisoning threats. Secure windows to avoid accidental falling. Cover fireplaces and guard stoves to prevent burning. The list of health and safety advice for new parents is long and frequently overwhelming. Based on solid research, these recommendations aim to prevent harm and improve health and wellness in children. That’s all well and good. But what happens when the side effects of solid advice are potentially worse than not following the advice?
Studies show that the risk of SIDS is reduced 50 percent if children and parents share a room. However, what goes unsaid is that sleeping in the same room has its own drastic consequences. Parents and infants who sleep in the same room both experience worse sleep than if they slept alone. Think about it. If a baby makes even the softest sound the parent might assume the child is waking and preemptively feed a bottle or pick up to soothe. But if left alone the child may well have just made some noise and gone back to sleep. Research shows that children have a higher incidence of night waking when they sleep with their parents. Furthermore, mothers who share a room with children report a more strained co-parenting relationship and higher depression symptoms. Additionally, women with a history of depression reported less attachment to their children even at six months of age when sharing a room. Also, chronically tired adults and children regularly suffer behavioral affects, including diminished patience, lower coping and impaired judgement.
According to AAP, each year nearly 3,500 infants die of sleep-related causes— including ill-defined deaths and accidental suffocation. In 2014, the last year for which data is compiled, approximately 1,500 infants died specifically from SIDS. The numbers of SIDS deaths have declined sharply in the last 25 years due to an impressive education campaign. Doctors and literature all recommend that children are put to bed on their backs and without blankets and bumpers to avoid accidental suffocation.
The death of any child is heartbreaking. But one that is preventable is unequivocally unbearable. Therefore, it is logical that conscientious parents would do just about anything to prevent premature death. However, the latest guidelines cannot be considered in a vacuum. Preventing the death of 1,000 children yearly is vital. But what if the current guidelines potentially negatively affect parents of the nearly 4 million babies born every year in the United States? The collateral damage of the recommendation for the vast majority of parents must also be contemplated.
Thinking about parenting guidelines and collateral damage reminds me of my struggles to breastfeed after the birth of my first child. The clear recommendation for myriad reasons is for mothers to breastfeed for as long as possible. After my daughter had a brief stint in the NICU and I had major milk overproduction issue, I struggled tremendously to breastfeed. The pain of infection and physical exhaustion was damaging my relationship with my daughter. I didn’t even want to pick her up for fear of producing more milk or feeling pain. After the third distressed call to my doctor she uttered words that went against popular medical advice—“Maybe you should stop breastfeeding.” She didn’t want to discourage me, but she sensed what I knew all along. Breastfeeding, while highly recommended, wasn’t the only important aspect to consider when deciding what was best for my child. Our relationship was paramount and breastfeeding was impairing that relationship.
While I respect the AAP and use their recommendations on a variety of parenting matters, I do think a conversation needs to be started about how to interpret their guidelines. Parents need to be educated and supported to make choices that are right for their family considering the evidence presented. All of the evidence. Not just the narrow focus of one particular recommendation.
Preventing SIDS is immensely important. No parent should have to experience that loss. However, the AAP recommendation of room sharing should be interpreted as a guideline. In no way do I recommend putting children to bed on their stomachs or co=sleeping in the family bed. Those risks are considerably higher. But the benefit of room sharing just doesn’t seem to outweigh the relative risks.