You've Been Misled: Babies Should Never Sleep Alone

We’ve all heard it. Never bring a baby into an adult bed. The horror stories are deeply embedded in our American psyche. And why wouldn’t they be? The scare tactics are relentless. The city of Milwaukee once put out an ad showing a baby sleeping in a bed, with pillows—and a meat cleaver. Another ad featured a baby angel walking away. The caption, designed to pierce any mother’s heart, explained that her mommy fell asleep, so now she’s an angel.

The video above, featuring a woman police officer, warns parents about sleeping with their babies by showing a woman with a doll in the middle of the bed, continuously rolling over it as she sleeps. This video insults mothers and motherhood.

These public service campaigns were spawned by American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations back in 2011. Politicians and pediatricians alike have unquestionably followed their advice. You know the drill: babies must sleep alone, on their back, in a crib. This dogma has been preached with the fervor of a pulpit-pounding hell-fire preacher on a Sunday night.

But is it true? Dr. Melissa Bartick, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and internist at Cambridge Health Alliance, believes it’s very problematic.

The problem with this widespread advice is that the AAP’s statement from which it comes is based on just four papers. Two of the studies are misrepresented, and actually show little or no risk of sharing a bed when parents do not smoke, and two of the studies do not collect data on maternal alcohol use, a known and powerful risk factor.

In addition, the AAP statement ignores many other more recent excellent papers that are not even mentioned or cited. My colleague, Linda J. Smith, and I recently published an analysis of all AAP’s statements and all the literature to date, “Speaking out on Safe Sleep: Evidence-Based Sleep Recommendations.” Along with this dissection of the AAP statement, we found that any risk of death from a parent sharing a bed with an infant is greatly overshadowed by other risks that get far less attention.

Next page: What they are not telling you.

Dr. James J. McKenna, Ph.D., director of University of Notre Dame’s Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, says parents have been very misled. We’ve been told what to do—no questions asked, or answered.

Anytime policy makers contradict the natural instincts of a mother, we need more information. The fact is that there are some pretty common sense precautions when it comes to an infant’s sleep:

  • Never sleep with a baby on a couch.
  • Never allow an infant to sleep with siblings.
  • Always check for crevices that a baby could fall into.
  • If you smoked while pregnant, don’t sleep with your baby.
  • Never allow anyone who smokes to sleep with your baby.
  • Never sleep with a baby if you use any kind of drugs or alcohol.

In spite of all the political hype, sleeping with an infant remains a common practice. It’s also baby-approved. Science and history both support the less-known theory that babies should never sleep alone.