The state of New York has a fairly aggressive ad campaign on billboards all around town — most especially in and near the hospitals — reminding new parents to “Share The Room, Not The Bed,” and that “Babies Sleep Safest Alone.” In the center of the “Share The Room” ad is a photo of a burly black baby with a magnificent afro and a T-shirt reading, “I ♥ My Crib.”
Before I was a father, I wholeheartedly endorsed this idea. Yes! Put the little guy in a sidecar sleeper — my bed is for me! The AAP was willing to give the stamp of medical necessity to my desire for ample bed space, and that was okay with me!
Except… not only didn’t our baby come with a magnificent afro, but he HATES his crib. Whatever the opposite of “♥” is, that’s what he does to his little sleeper. If you feed him and change him, nine times out of ten, he whonks right out, which is great. He’s even fairly amiable about the transition to the crib surface itself. But ten minutes later — around the time that we have finally settled back in under the covers and are able to drift off to blessed, beautiful sleep — the grunting starts. Grunting followed by fussing followed by a single high-pitched shriek. Then he calms himself, to be sure — he is an excellent, excellent baby that way — but this is really more in the manner of a snooze button, and two minutes later, it happens again: grunt, fuss, shriek. It does not make for a restful environment.
But you know what he does like? He likes to be held. He likes to sleep on you, or next to you, or in the crook of your arm. He looooooves it when you put a hand on his little belly; even in the midst of great fussiness he can usually be dialed down almost to zero through a little reassuring tummy coverage.
So… is co-sleeping really so dangerous that it’s worth parents being unable to sleep at all? After all, sleep deprivation is, even over the short term, extremely dangerous, especially considering that we’re driving this little guy around to appointments and such.
Well, it turns out to be hard to say how dangerous co-sleeping is. First, a lot of the information about co-sleeping seems to conflate the dangers of “over-laying” and suffocation — perfectly reasonable concerns — with SIDS. I don’t know why they do this. SIDS, by definition, is an unexplained death of a seemingly healthy infant. Clearly the death of an infant who’s been suffocated by an oblivious adult is not really unexplained. Yet even the normally reliable American Academy of Pediatrics unaccountably addresses its co-sleeping concerns in its formal policy statement on SIDS:
Although bed-sharing rates are increasing in the United States for a number of reasons, including facilitation of breastfeeding, the task force concludes that the evidence is growing that bed sharing, as practiced in the United States and other Western countries, is more hazardous than the infant sleeping on a separate sleep surface and, therefore, recommends that infants not bed share during sleep…. The infant should not be brought into bed when the parent is excessively tired or using medications or substances that could impair his or her alertness.
Clearly, if the parent’s tiredness or — let’s be clear what they’re talking about here — drunkenness or stonedness becomes a factor, then what we’re dealing with here isn’t really SIDS. It’s accidental death. The AAP paper actually makes clear that the primary concerns (apart from Jim Beam) are things like poofy, denty cushioning, and not mysterious inborn factors:
Because it is very dangerous to sleep with an infant on a couch or armchair, no one should sleep with an infant on these surfaces.
Of course, a lot of accidental death probably ends up being misreported as SIDS, because what medical official wants to compound the parents’ grief and loss by pointing out to them that they probably killed their kid by rolling over onto him and then sleeping through it as he suffocated?
(And, indeed, the list of risk factors, which is wildly varied and full of social and family factors, makes me suspect “SIDS” is a bit of a catchall diagnosis that will probably later be sorted into things like genetic disorders, subtle infections, and the occasional sheer failure of the immature nervous system — never mind misreported accidents and abuse.)
But let’s assume that the AAP is simply doing the expedient thing by mixing SIDS and cosleeping into a single “DANGER SLEEPING!” category in order to simplify the message for a broad range of parents. The real question is, is the AAP’s recommendation warranted?
Seems like it’s hard to say. This British study, published in the BMJ in 1999, seemed to find that the risk of death during co-sleeping was not significant after you factored out smoking, substance use, and several other potential hazards. On the other hand, a study published a decade later by many of the same authors in the same journal did find some correlation (54% of babies who died of SIDS had been cosleeping at the time, whereas only 20% of randomly selected controls coslept), though the authors were quick to point out that a lot of that correlation “may be explained by a significant multivariable interaction between cosleeping and recent parental use of alcohol or drugs” and by the dreaded couch factor.
(Weirdly, this study also found a vastly greater percentage of SIDS babies were swaddled than babies in the control group (24% v 6%). The study isn’t that large — only about 250 babies all together — so that may be an anomaly in the data, especially given that larger studies seem to indicate that swaddling actually reduces the rate of SIDS, possibly by increasing babies’ sensitivity to auditory stimuli.)
On the other hand, this somewhat larger study in Southern California found that there was no significant correlation between bed-sharing and SIDS (odds ratio for nighttime sleep: 1.2, or nearly identical). And this meta-study found that there was no significant correlation between cosleeping and SIDS, and that there was some evidence to suggest that cosleeping can actually help prevent SIDS because “infants who bed share have an increased number of awakenings during the evening,” or, as you and I might put it, when you sleep three-to-a-bed other people are always waking you the fuck up.
Anyway, good luck making heads or tails of all that, but a number of common themes do emerge across studies:
- Don’t get sloshing drunk and then go to bed with your baby.
- Stay away from couches.
- Quit smoking.
Fortunately, for nearly every problem, there’s a technical solution, and after five restless nights we hit upon ours: the Snuggle Nest.
It is, as you can see, a box with a baby in it that you put in the middle of the bed. Your presence and the little side bumpers keep your little dude feeling cozy and compressed, while the sturdy plastic walls keep your stoned ass from rolling over and crushing him. Everybody wins.
(Although if you sleep on a full size futon, you may have to get used to sleeping on your side. Our new dream isn’t any sort of glamorous career or even a homestead; we just want a king size bed.)
In other news, we are terrible people. My parents decided they would buy us cloth diaper service while we are here, which was incredibly kind of them. Our family used cloth diapers quite successfully when my younger sister was a baby, and I always thought they were practical and easy to use. Plus disposables clog up the landfills, and if there’s one thing I’m committed to, it’s clean landfills.
But the hospital where our son stayed for his first 16 days used, of course, paper diapers. And… and they’re so easy. And self-contained. And quick. Quick is important, because H. has decided that farting when the diaper is off is immensely satisfying — and he’s not always firing blanks. I mean, I wash off, but really.
I feel bad about this, both because my parents went to some trouble to make this happen and because I know I’m killing future generations of striped landfill muskrats. But my God… I need this one thing. I need it. I’ll give it up later, I promise.
Finally, a bit of a science puzzle. We were instructed, when we took H. home, to start giving him iron in solution every day. (It goes under the handy brand name Fer-In-Sol and is actually ferrous sulfate, FeSO4, a fact that will become important presently.) Then the other day at our first visit to the pediatrician, we were also told to get a vitamin solution, Tri-Vi-Sol, which contains A, C, and D, D being the most important as we are fairly far north and he doesn’t get it in the breast milk.
Anyway, today I decided to give him both drops at the same time. I gave him the iron first, which he didn’t seem to mind too much. But then I gave him the vitamins. I knew he didn’t like the taste, so I expected him to push some of it back out of his mouth. What I did not expect was the fairly violent coughing and the BLACK SPUTUM.
Yes, his spit turned black. It was, erm, disturbing.
My wife was alarmed. My mom said “I think he’s turning blue,” although I’m pretty sure he was really a more irritable purple than anything else. We wiped off his mouth and apologized, but he looked upon anything we brought near his mouth with grave suspicion for the next hour or so.
Later, because we were nerds before we were parents, Elana and I tried to recreate the weird black substance. We mixed Fer-In-Sol (which is clear) and Tri-Vi-Sol (brown) in a little dish. Nothing happened. We then each tasted a bit. It was pretty gross, but not alchemical. That was disappointing. We stared at it for a moment. I went to the sink, about to throw it out, but in the last moment as I swirled it around in the dish the little black grains appeared. We tasted it again. Our tongues tingled; it felt like weak battery acid.
So either it takes a little time or human saliva is the key ingredient (we’re pretty sure some spit from our tasting fingers got in the dish), but anyway, you can make your own black, vaguely poisonous-tasting concoction at home using simple children’s nutritional supplements. My scientific wild-ass guess is that the iron bonded with something, creating the black precipitate and leaving the SO4 free to form H2SO4, maybe? Anybody with a chemistry education better or more recent than mine, please — please — theorize away about this. Otherwise I will be forced to experiment on my child again.