Milwaukee Ads on Co-Sleeping: The Blood Boils

posted by Mama Hope | November 16th, 2011 in Attachment Parenting

I had to come out of the woodwork on this one: the Milwaukee ad campaign to prevent co-sleeping.

Troubled that their rate of infant mortality is excessively high, the City of Milwaukee has come out with an ad campaign comparing co-sleeping with an infant to, essentially, butchering your child with a knife.

What recent college graduate who has never breast fed or cared for a child came up with this one?

Complete Lack of Informed Knowledge of Co-Sleeping

I think the thing that is most troubling about this ad is the utter lack of consideration or knowledge about co-sleeping, which in fact has existed in our species for milennia. It has been shown that the majority of mothers either openly or privately admit to co-sleeping at least on a periodic basis. Thus this ad is not targeted to a small fringe group of ignorant un-informed mothers, but instead to the vast majority of parents in the world, who are taking part in an act that:

  • Is a natural response to nurturing.
  • Is predominant in most areas of the world, including countries with lower infant death rates than the U.S.
  • Has been proven to have benefits to infant safety, particularly in relation to the suspected cause of SIDS in developed nations.

Research on the scientific benefits of co-sleeping is available on Ask Dr. Sears.

Loss of an Opportunity to Teach about Safe Co-Sleeping

The fact of the matter is this: if co-sleeping was universally unsafe, we would have become extinct as a species many, many years ago.

But the particular shame of this ad campaign is this: there are aspects of co-sleeping that parents should educated about, and this campaign misses that mark entirely.

What should be advocated is *safe* co-sleeping practices, such as:

  1. Choosing not to co-sleep when under the influence (a primary cause of the small number of deaths that have occurred),
  2. Not co-sleeping on *couches*, and
  3. Not co-sleeping if you or your husband are obese.
  4. Choosing a firmer bed and avoiding feather beds and foam bed liners.
  5. Ensuring that any space between the mattress and head board or foot board are filled, for example, with rolled towels or another firm support.
  6. Ensuring that the mother, preferably breastfeeding, is near the child and alert to its breath and movements. Studies have shown that sleeping, breastfeeding mothers often awake to even the slightest trouble of their infant, lowering risk of SIDS.

For more on safe co-sleeping, see the book Good Nights, by Jay Gordon.

You can see parallels here with general health risks that we all face. For example, with pregnancy: if you are alcoholic, obese, or diabetic you carry certain risks with your pregnancy that need to be addressed. And those same risks can carry over beyond your pregnancy and into your child-rearing as well.

Equating co-sleeping to “butchering” your child because it is not safe for people struggling with addiction or obesity?

This is like saying that the end result of human pregnancy is fetal alcohol syndrome, therefore humans should not become pregnant.

Respect for Parents, Respect for Babies

The unfortunate consequence of Milwaukee’s campaign is that it takes power away from parents: to make their own decisions, to act in line with nature, and to act safely.

Instead, the campaign functions as an insult — an insult to parents who co-sleep and an insult to the intelligence of those who wish to fully understand the issue and become truly educated and informed. Like many insults it is carried about from a position of ignorance. It acts from ignorance, and it spreads ignorance.

We should shun ignorance but also look upon it with compassion. Am I sorry that the people of Milwaukee suffer from a high infant mortality rate? Yes. Do I feel this scourge should be faced head on with research and education? Yes.

Does this excuse the City from becoming fully educated on this issue before issuing a ridiculously one-sided, hurtful, inconsiderate, and uninformed campaign? No. My hope is that the City will use the attention they are getting to find a place of humility, become more informed, and work to educate from a position of increased power.

When we speak with gusto and verve, we have a responsibility to consider the consequences more fully and to fully educate ourselves as to our position.

What do you think? Should Milwaukee issue an apology? Or are they acting rightly for the benefit of the people of Milwaukee?

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7 Responses to “Milwaukee Ads on Co-Sleeping: The Blood Boils”

  1. I looked into the Dr. Sears page that you linked to, and it seems that he is being sloppy and/or misleading. I think he has misrepresented the scientific studies he cites. For instance, the BMJ study he cites at #10 says: “There was an INCREASE RISK(of SIDS) for infants who shared the bed for the whole sleep” (emphasis mine). Yet Dr. Sears says there is a DECREASE in SIDS risk for infants who co-sleep.

    He also cites a non-peer-reviewed student’s thesis paper as “evidence” that co-sleeping is beneficial.

    There is a reason that advocates of science-based health care are not fond of Dr. Sears.

  2. Peter Fleming, from quote #10 supports *safe* co-sleeping. Note his piece for Mothering magazine:

    “Always put your baby to sleep on his back, not on his side or front.

    Do sleep with your baby in the same room; putting her in a separate room doubles the risk of SIDS.

    If you find it easier, particularly if you are breastfeeding, do bring your baby into bed to feed.

    If you smoke, have been drinking alcohol, have taken drugs or medicines that may make you sleepy, or are excessively tired, do not bring your baby into bed with you to sleep; put him back into the crib after he feeds.

    Do not sleep with your baby on a sofa, armchair, waterbed, or very soft mattress.

    If you wish to sleep with your baby in your bed, make sure that the bedding cannot cover her head, and keep her away from the pillow.”

    Also, from the publication Unexpected death in childhood: a handbook for practitioners By Peter Sidebotham, Peter Fleming, Peter John Fleming, “Adjusting for potential cofounders associated with the adult co-sleeping environment in our UK study… rendered bed sharing a non-significant risk factor suggesting it is not bed-sharing itself but the particular circumstances in which bed-sharing occurs that puts an infant at risk. An intriguing aspect of this debate is that in certain cultures where mother-infant co-sleeping is common, such as Japan and Hong Kong, the cot-death rates are very low…”

    And it is unfortunate that out of 16 studies cited by Dr. Sears, one of them is not peer-reviewed, isn’t it? I can see why you would completely dismiss these results and join the ranks of those “not fond” of Dr. Sears. For shame, Dr. Sears. Supporting and motivating an entire generation of nurturing and dedicated parenting just doesn’t cut it when you gosh darn cite a non-peer reviewed study! There is no room for error in the world of white coats for the inspirational leaders who go about willy-nilly all citing the work of *students*! Students are all frauds! Everybody knows that!

    Another quote from Peter Fleming: “Rather than issuing broad statements, not based upon good evidence, to suggest that parents should not bedshare with their babies, I suggest that giving them accurate information, based upon careful studies of healthy babies as well as babies who have died, will allow parents to make safe and appropriate choices.”

  3. I’m not sure I understand, J. Marshall… how is a non-peer-reviewed students thesis paper any less “science-based” than a peer-reviewed one? Or does your definition of science require a process that has very little to do with neutral, responsible, objectivity, but rather has more to do with receiving kudos for a job well done by those in your field (whether it was truly done well or not)?

    In fact, peer review is nothing more than academia self-policing in a very self-serving, ignorant and biased way… so technically, that could be construed as being very “unscientific”.

    I don’t know about you, but I’m going to go with thousands of years of co-sleeping success as my “scientific” basis for advocating this practice. But hey, maybe me and my silly little friend called Logic are just being ridiculous.

  4. I notice that you did not respond to the result that there was an increased risk of SIDS for infants who shared the parent’s bed for the whole sleep, much like Dr. Sears ignored it.

    And yes, when a doctor creates a web page titled “Scientific Benefits of Co-Sleeping,” he should only use scientific findings to support his information. I am not saying that the student is lying, I am saying that a student’s thesis is much less reliable than a published, peer-reviewed study.

  5. J. Marshall, how many peer-reviewed articles are there citing an increased risk, how large was the study, and how repeatable are the results? Were the SIDS deaths to babies whose care-givers were practicing safe sleep?

    To my understanding in WI 100% of 2009 and 2010 infant deaths when sleep space sharing is a factor were not practicing safe sleep. Many included an intoxicated parent, some included not the mother, and all were non-breastfed infants.

    How many peer-reviewed articles discuss the rate of infant death in cultures where it is the norm for infants and children to share the bed with the adults?

    I do not possess the time nor the medical jargon understanding to find these, but I pose the question in response to your own question.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with you! Thank you for posting this. I have repinned it so other people and be aware of this ad’s stupidity.

  7. Consider Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. His experiments existed before such a thing as a “peer reviewed” study existed. The fact that an article is non-peer reviewed, logically speaking, does not immediately render it non-conclusive. Nor does a peer-reviewed study render results absolutely conclusive.

    The line drawn by the community in terms of peer-reviewed vs. non-peer reviewed is an arbitrary one, in my assessment, although it is certainly a convenient one. The only other possibility would be to establish an independent body that reviewed each scientist by his methods and an established track record of results being refuted or repeated by others. Peer-review while certainly a proxy for this is more like a “gentleman’s club” stand in.

    Just because the medical community has determined that, within the confines of their gentleman’s club, one has to first graduate from a hazing before one’s studies receive merit does not in itself render a study valid. Nor does it render it useless in terms of the needs of those who wish to seek truth. It’s quite possible that the student’s study was problematic; I’ve seen plenty of non-peer reviewed studies with small groups that gave me pause as to whether their results had significance. It is equally, in my mind, possible that the student’s study is *more* reliable due to this student being *outside* a prejudiced body.

    As meta-studies have concluded, professional bodies tend to do an excellent job of proving what the body has, whether selfishly or dogmatically, already chosen to believe true. Thus when questioning the prevailing truth held by one such body the logical place to look would be outside of that group. Peer review holds no strangle hold over science, as much as it would be convenient if that were true. Peers, by their very nature, and even by their own self nomer are human “cliques”.

    So I’m with Ashley’s comment, though a bit long-winded at it!

    And I also have the same stance as Sara in terms of numbers. I don’t have the time to look up the data here. But the numbers clearly represent a gap between safe and unsafe co-sleeping, and those who argue against co-sleeping inevitably choose to ignore these factors. Thanks for those figures Sara.

    And, J. Marshall, by putting up a more complete quote by Dr. Fleming I was addressing the study you mention (which was itself by Dr. Fleming). And I would argue that you yourself are ignoring the study by continuing to proffer it as some sort of evidence against Dr. Sears.

    So, if you insist, here’s a quote from that study:

    “Conclusions: There are certain circumstances when bed sharing should be avoided, particularly for infants under four months old. Parents sleeping on a sofa with infants should always be avoided. THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT BED SHARING IS HAZARDOUS for infants of parents who do not smoke.” (emphasis mine)

    As they say, correlation does not equal causation. Considering that Dr. Fleming’s call to fame is a drastic reduction in SIDS deaths in the UK, I’d imagine he has done the math to attempt to sort out correlation from causation here. And that he would then make recommendations based on those determinations. What is the cause of the deaths? Co-sleeping itself? Or some other factor? The study in question addresses this issue, as does the earlier quote from Dr. Fleming. To repeat myself a bit, and Dr. Fleming:

    “The risk linked with bed sharing among younger infants seems to be associated with recent parental consumption of alcohol, overcrowded housing conditions, extreme parental tiredness, and the infant being under a duvet.”

    As I’m sure we can all agree, it is decidedly non-scientific to equate correlation with causation. So in response I would say that neither myself nor Dr. Sears are “ignoring” this study, we are simply being thorough and precise.

    Here’s how I would sum things up: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


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