Cosleeping Safety and the Milwaukee Billboards

I’ve started looking into cosleeping in the wake of the Milwaukee anti-cosleeping billboards. I said to a friend recently that there’s something fucked up in Milwaukee to have caused all of their recent deaths, so that’s where I started in my research: what the fuck is happening in Milwaukee?

I started with the 2010 City of Milawukee Fetal Infant Mortality Review (FIMR) Report.

It’s immediately apparent that Milwaukee has an abysmal infant death rate, which is sharply divided by race and location. That report breaks out two zipcodes, their racial makeup, and their death rate for 2008. One zip code is 97.6% white with an infant death rate of zero. The other zipcode is 94.9% black with an infant death rate of 17.6, which is a shockingly high number. 73% of Milwaukee infant deaths are caused by complications of prematurity and congenital abnormalities. 18% are attributed to “SIDS, overlay, accidental suffocation”. SIDS is a really tricky diagnosis to research, because it has different definitions and is inconsistently applied, but I’m setting that aside for now.

For the deaths in the “SIDS, overlay, accidental suffocation category”, there are several “risk factors” that have been identified as being present in these kinds of deaths. (It’s important to note that “risk factor” doesn’t mean that factor caused the death, just that those factors were present.) The risk factors present in the Milwaukee deaths were 1) pillows, blankets, soft things present with the baby 2) bedsharing 3) secondhand smoke 4) baby placed prone or on side 5) baby was born prematurely 6) alcohol or drug abuse by caregiver 7) baby sleeping on a couch, chair, carseat, or swing. The average number of these risk factors present in each death was four. I can’t tell from the report quite how these risk factors tended to occur together.

There are several scenarios I’m worried about with an alarmist campaign like this:

  • Will parents who bedshare, smoke, and have soft things in bed with baby stop bedsharing but continue to put smokey soft things in a crib, not doing much to reduce overall death?
  • Will parents who’ve been bedsharing without any other risk factors avoid bedsharing now, depriving them of the benefits of bedsharing without any decrease in deaths?
  • Will parents not learn about how to safely bedshare and then do it unsafely when they fall asleep from exhaustion or take the baby to their bed out of desperation (which happens at some point or another for almost all parents)?

I’ve never understood the general panic over cosleeping. I mean, “crib sleeping” isn’t safe, either. For safe crib sleeping (or, I like to say “isolation sleeping”) you have to follow a long list of safety guidelines:

  • Make sure your crib has a Consumer Product Safety Commission label or a Juvenile Products Manufacturer’s Association (JPMA) label and that your crib has not been recalled and that the bars are no more than 2-3/8 inches apart.
  • Only use a mattress designed for your crib. Check that the mattress fits the crib perfectly.
  • Do not accept hand-me-down cribs or buy secondhand cribs.
  • Don’t use loose-fitting mattress protectors.
  • Don’t put pillows, stuffed animals, toys, or bumper pads in the crib.
  • Don’t place the crib near a heater, against a window, near any dangling cords from windows, or near large furniture.
  • Use a baby monitor if you are not sitting right nearby while your baby is in the crib.
  • Make sure there are no missing, loose or broken parts or improperly installed screws, brackets or other hardware on the crib or the mattress support.  Check the stability and hardware on the crib often. Check for loose threads and strings, holes and tears. Make sure there is no cracked or peeling paint, splinters or rough edges.

Huh. It’s almost like cribs aren’t really a safe place for babies to sleep. How come I haven’t seen any alarmist billboards about the dangers of crib sleeping? Safely bedsharing actually involves many of the same warnings: keep pillows and soft bedding away from baby, have a firm mattress, don’t have gaps between the mattress and the wall/headboard, etc. Why can’t we just let parents know the basic guidelines of safe bedsharing? A huge campaign was launched in 1994 to educate parents to put babies to sleep on their backs, and the campaign is credited with reducing the SIDS rate by 50%. Maybe it’s time for a safe cosleeping campaign.

The reality of bedsharing is that as almost 70% of American parents cosleep with their baby at some point. Why? Because there are strong benefits of cosleeping, both for the children and for the parents.

  • Babies sleep better and enjoy going to sleep more.
  • Mothers sleep better.
  • Breastfeeding is easier, rates are higher, and duration is longer.
  • Cosleeping fosters independence in older babies and children.
  • Cosleeping has positive effects on the child’s overall emotional health.
  • It is parenting. Many parents prefer to keep relating to their children during sleep.

For additional reading about these benefits, visit peaceful parenting, Natural Parents Network, and PhD in Parenting.

Instead of listening to alarmist news reports, I recommend that you listen to the research of Dr James McKenna from the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab at the University of Notre Dame. The Sleep Lab is a research and teaching laboratory that researches the safety, physiological, and psychological consequences of parent-child sleep choices. Digging into their published articles is a goldmine, but you can learn a lot just by checking out their website:

  • “Mother-infant cosleeping with breastfeeding is humankind’s oldest and most successful sleeping arrangement.” The Western practices of formula-feeding and moving sleeping babies away from their parents and off of their backs is responsible for the SIDS epidemic. Likewise, mothers suffocating their babies while sleeping is also a Western problem that requires more explanation than simply blaming bedsharing alone.
  • Infants require continual proximity and contact with a caregiver’s body for their nutritional needs (breastfeeding) and also to promote proper functioning of their body temperature, immune system, heart rate, breathing, organ development, and central nervous system as well as their psychological and emotional development. For older children, cosleeping contributes to their “independence, social competence, feeling of high self esteem, strong sexual identities, good comportment…in school, [and] ability to handle stress…”
  • “Sleeping through the night” is a completely emotionally, socially, and biologically inappropriate activity for babies. McKenna calls it “scientifically bogus”. Babies should wake frequently in the night to breastfeed, staying in the kind of “lighter sleep” for which they are designed.
  • A breastfeeding mother is more physiologically and mentally in tune to her baby’s movements and sounds than a formula-feeding mother, and the breastfeeding baby is more physiologically tuned to her. The baby and mother in a breastfeeding dyad spend more time in “lighter sleep” that makes them more responsive to one another. Almost all bedsharing deaths involve non-breastfeeding babies.
  • Bedsharing deaths are overwhelmingly associated with other independent risk factors, notably: baby placed on ou stomach in an adult bed with no supervision, lack of breastfeeding, baby placed on top of a pillow, maternal smoking, and drug and alcohol use. This was shown in the Milwaukee report, as well, where an average of four risk factors were present.
  • If you aren’t comfortable with bedsharing, or if you’re formula feeding or otherwise can’t make the safest bedsharing environment, remember that cosleeping by having the baby in a crib or bassinet in the room with you gets the job done, too. The idea is to have the baby within sensory range of a parent. This kind of “separate surface” cosleeping is non-controversial and recommended by everyone.

The facts about formula-feeding really interested me. McKenna’s research on that was verified for a Fox6 news report. All the cosleeping deaths in Milwaukee in 2009 and 2010 up until the report were of formula-feeding babies. In the FIMR from Milwaukee, why isn’t formula-feeding listed as a “risk factor”? The Fox6 report talks about a woman who accidentally killed her 6 day old infant while sleeping with her while drunk. Why is that a “cosleeping death”?!

What’s clear to me is that Milwaukee has a serious infant death problem that highlights their larger problems of racial and income-based disparities. Why are 73% of babies dying from issues with prematurity or birth defects? And why are those deaths clustered in certain zipcodes? Putting scary images on billboards that point the finger of blame at individual parents is a lot easier than addressing economic inequalities or a failing health care system. In the Fox6 news report, Anna Benton of the Milwaukee Health Department says,

“I really don’t think that this is a problem of any specific cultural group. And I guess I don’t feel it’s the place of the health department to distinguish between different types of people.”

But shouldn’t it be the job of the health department to determine the real reasons for these deaths and to address the most important factors? In Milwaukee (and elsewhere), cosleeping deaths occur mostly in poor, black families living in what Pat McManus of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin calls “chaotic homes.” Addressing poverty in black communities and the substance abuse, poor health care, and difficult child-rearing choices that accompanies poverty are much harder to do than just creating mean billboards.

Members of The Milwaukee Health Department are not doing their jobs. They are cowards who are ignoring the real needs of their communities.

In conclusion, this quote from the Sleep Lab site stood out to me as the bottom line on the anti-cosleeping mania in which Milwaukee is currently leading the pack:

“Unfortunately, the rhetoric against bedsharing parents has turned very ugly, very vitriolic, negatively judgmental and condemnatory, and indeed, nothing less than threatening, of any and all bedsharing parents even when risks are minimized; and the zeal and imprecise language which is being used by many technicians involved in what is considered “safe infant sleep” campaigns is over simplified to the point that it is inaccurate, misleading, and inappropriate, and is itself dangerous on many different levels, both politically and scientifically.”


  1. Sara says

    AMEN! I’m impressed by your research and analysis of the data. *Of course* there are many other risk-factors to the high SIDS rate in Milwaukee! Why aren’t we hearing about those? I believe you’re right that they are cowards and going for the easiest target. This post makes me even more angry about it, though.

  2. Sarah says

    I’d be shocked if it was only 70%, honestly. When I worked for WIC, I can’t remember a single parent who didn’t co-sleep, at least occasionally. They certainly weren’t crunchy! They’d always confess it to me like, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this…” That worried me the most, really. I believe they felt so guilty, they had no idea what really was safe. So I definitely see your point.

    • says

      I think it’s a given that cosleeping and bed-sharing are more prevalent amongst poor people, which may explain why everyone you interacted with at WIC did it. The overall number is probably lower than you observed at WIC.

      • Sarah says

        Possibly. When I say co-sleeping, I’m going with strict definition, which is sleeping with a baby – ever. I find it hard to believe that most parents haven’t at least passed out on the couch while the baby is on them.

        • says

          I took that statistic from a National Center for Health Statistics survey covering 1991 to 1999. It found that 25% of American families always or almost always slept with their baby in bed, 42% slept with their baby “sometimes,” and 32% never slept with their baby.

        • says

          You’re probably right that there are people out there who sometimes nap with their baby on their shoulder, but who don’t respond “yes” to cosleeping surveys because they don’t think that counts.

          • Sara says

            Also, I’m sure some of those “never” responses are people who don’t want to admit to co-sleeping because they feel ashamed of it.

  3. Ludvik Herrera says

    This is as absurd as when there was a big push all through out the 50’s and 60’s to give babies formula. “Nothing is better than a great formula with all the vitamins your baby needs” Then the repercussion which still is taking decades to try to bring back breast feeding.

    Don’t go about it by the logical elements you mentioned in your research, which are great points, but do it by the simplest most logical of all, nature.

    By nature babies would be cosleeping with the parents, or at least the mother, why? Because human infants are very fragile and dependent of the mother. In nature, there are no pillows, no cribs and no blankets.

    There are cases where death occurs because of SIDS. Many health related issues can be listed here, that could be a factor, but it is not related to cosleeping.

    Joshua, it could be the case that cosleeping occurs more frequently with poor people in the U.S. But I’ll tell you that a great percentage of ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ folks, which have great wealth actually seek cosleeping as well. Not to mention that in ‘third world countries’ cosleeping is the norm, whether rich or poor, and the number of deaths is very minimum.

    Cosleeping is natural, do not blame cosleeping as the cause or factor. Many times is imprudence, idiocy or simply negligence.

    Issa, thank you for sharing this article, but I’d like to add one point of criticism to the article. Let’s not list or mention research by any media (i.e. Your article mentions FOX News. The media is at very large fault in exaggerating and creating sensationalistic campaigns with all these type os stories.

    • says

      Joshua, it could be the case that cosleeping occurs more frequently with poor people in the U.S. But I’ll tell you that a great percentage of ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ folks, which have great wealth actually seek cosleeping as well. Not to mention that in ‘third world countries’ cosleeping is the norm, whether rich or poor, and the number of deaths is very minimum.

      I can’t cite a source, but I’m pretty sure it’s simply established fact that cosleeping is more prevalent among lower-income people. Maybe Issa can provide a source to make this more than my memory.

      Regarding third-world countries–of course that’s true, but I hope it was obvious that the context of this discussion was the US. It wouldn’t make sense to compare people Sarah encountered at the WIC office to a global pool.

      • says

        It is a stereotype that poorer people cosleep, and that people who can afford more beds don’t do so, but I do not know how that compares to the actual practice. The established fact is that cosleeping deaths occur more often in low-income families, but this is more likely for other hand-in-hand factors like poor health care and more substance abuse than simply that more poorer people are cosleeping.

    • says

      I agree with you that the media drives the sensationalism around stories like these, but I don’t think never mentioning a news source is the right response. There are things that they can do that I can’t, like access the coroner’s reports in Milwaukee or interview people from the health department or the Black Heath Coalition. It’s valuable to me to use that information.

  4. Angela says

    Excellent post!!!! There is always something more behind these types of attack ads and you hit the nail on the head! We are now co-sleeping with our 5th baby and doing so safely & responsibly.

  5. Kathryn says

    Excellent article.

    I agree that the Milwaukee Government is obligated to provide an effective response to a complex issue.

    People should expect more from their Governments.

  6. Julia Ledesma says

    What an intelligent post. I never intended to bed-share with my children, but have done so because my firstborn practically demanded it and I could not see letting a newborn cry it out for hours. I have enjoyed the best experience co-sleeping and simply cannot understand all of the ridiculous propaganda against it. I obviously take precautions to ensure that my baby remains safe while sleeping with me, and find it ironic that there are safety precautions that must be taken with both sleeping arrangements, but the alarms are sounded only about co-sleeping.

  7. Melissa says

    I live in Milwaukee and bed share, and let me tell you, I can’t even tell my Dr about it, let alone family or friends. I know the facts of bed sharing, and I know how to do it the right way, but if my social worker were to find out, I would be judged so harshly that I would risk having my child taken away. I agree that the rules of bed sharing should be shared, as opposed to scaring the shit out of every first time parent in the area. I turned to it out of desperation, as my daughter would not sleep alone the entire night. Try as I might, I was constantly up every 20 minutes putting her back in her bassinet. Finally I read up on bed sharing, and have slept well along with my daughter for 4 months now. I find it ridiculous that I have to hide it and lie about it, but I know that it’s for the best. We can try moving to a crib later, but for now, we sleep together, and she takes naps in her bassinet.


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