Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Baby, My Bed, My Business

Does anyone remember those shockingly disturbing commercials last summer depicting a father walking through the house with a hand-held video camera intent on videoing his wife and new baby girl sleeping on the couch, only to find that the baby wasn’t breathing?

Anyone remember how at the end of that extraordinarily disturbing PSA was a message telling people to never ever sleep with their babies?

Anyone remember spending a complete 10 seconds in silent shock and disgust before throwing shoes at the television and screaming, That’s bullshit! They aren’t even following safe sleep guidelines! Everyone knows you can’t sleep with a baby on a couch! Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!! while your husband contemplated whether to physically restrain you before you found something heavier to lob at his television?

Anyone? Or was that just me?

I’m a bedsharing parent. What that means is that Norah has spent a decent chunk of her nights nuzzled into our bed, sleeping right beside me. Despite the indications of the Indiana Department of Child Services’ disturbing and extremely misleading PSA last summer, Norah has never gotten wedged between the cushions of my couch, smothered under a pillow, overheated by heavy blanets, rolled over on, or fallen to her death from my bed. No one has squished her, smothered her, tangled her up in the sheets, or forgotten she was there. She has been quite safe, sleeping in my bed.

Norah has never once been in anything that even remotely resembled danger in my bed, in large part because D and I religiously follow established safe bedsharing guidelines. This might seem like a no-brainer, but safe bedsharing guidelines basically outline all the things you should/shouldn’t do before you bring your baby to bed with you, so that hazards to your baby can be eliminated and your baby can be safe in bed with you.

They aren’t crazy requirements, either. No one is asking you to sleep on a bamboo mat on the floor of a bomb shelter, with the building facing east and a voodoo priestess safety spell firmly in place. It’s normal, common sense stuff – don’t sleep with your baby on a waterbed or couch, don’t put a bunch of squishy pillows by your baby’s head, don’t sleep with your baby stone cold drunk.

It’s possible these might be paraphrased.

There are more guidelines, and they are all reasonable, normal sounding, achievable things.  And generally, they keep babies safe. I personally have never heard of a case where a bedsharing infant died and parents were following all of the safe sleep guidelines. Which is not to say it doesn’t happen, but that it seems to me that if it happened very frequently, I would have heard of one. Every infant death I’ve ever heard of that was related to parent/infant sleep sharing involved infractions on safe bedsharing guidelines.

So when DCS aired their ever-so-misleading campaign against parent/infant sleep sharing, that did not fly with me. At all.

It is difficult enough being a bedsharing parent in a culture where bedsharing isn’t the norm.

It is difficult listening to people suggest to you that you might be stunting your child’s emotional growth, or that you sleep with your baby because there’s something psychologically wrong with you, or to hear people tell you you’re “asking for (your baby) to die”.

It is difficult to be put on trial over and over for parenting the best way you know how, just because it’s different from other people.

It is difficult to repeatedly clench your jaw, close your eyes, count to 5, force a smile, and non-confrontationally explain the benefits of bedsharing and the safe bedsharing guidelines to people who have more-or-less accused you of child endangerment.

All of that is already difficult. But when the state steps in and tells everyone that you’re parenting the wrong way, and, what’s more, they’ve used an outrageously unsafe example that not even the most hard-core bedsharing advocate would ever consider, that’s just enraging. Completely enraging.

I have to be honest here, I’m slightly pissed off about the whole thing.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t set out to bedshare. I bought a crib and set it up. I borrowed my grandmother’s bassinet – the one my mother slept in as a baby and borrowed from her mother for me to sleep in as a baby. I got swaddle blankets and a crib aquarium and borrowed “The Happiest Baby on the Block” video from the library. I got sleeping wedges to make baby feel snug. I was set.

But that didn’t really work out for me. My baby turned out to be higher needs than I anticipated. If you set her down awake she screamed bloody murder. If you set her down asleep, she slept… for 15 minutes. Literally. 15 minutes. I could set my watch by her. No amount of swaddling, heating up the bassinet sheets, gentle, gradual transfers to the bassinet, or white noise would keep this baby asleep for more than 15 minutes. I read every book I could find, scoured the internet, implemented every solution that seemed safe to me, and still she would not sleep. It was pure hell.

And so, I did what any desperate parent would do – I called someone who knows more stuff than me and asked for advice. Hallie from Birth Matters showed up at my door with 2 books, a giant list of resources, and advice to look through everything and make a decision that would work best for my family.

We started bedsharing that night.

Once Norah started sleeping next to me, she slept for hours. Hours. And when she woke it barely disturbed me – I’d just cuddle her, nurse her and drift back to sleep. It was like I’d traded my newborn in for an entirely different baby. People would ask me how she was sleeping and I’d open my mouth to respond that she was sleeping through the night, and then realize that she wasn’t actually sleeping all the way through – it just felt like it because we were so seldom awake for more than just a few moments here and there.

Bedsharing was a lifesaver for me. We slept, we nursed more happily and easily at night, we got to cuddle more, Norah cried less. Despite the claims of DCS, I felt better about her safety once she started sleeping with me, having read about the causes of SIDS and the ways that mothers’ and babies’ bodies react to one another during sleep. Norah wouldn’t forget to breathe and never wake up; she would be prompted by my breathing to start up again. She wouldn’t get into a deep sleep where she couldn’t rouse herself; she would stay in a lighter, safer stage of sleep and rouse simultaneously with me. Call it God or call it evolution – babies seem to have been designed to sleep next to their mommas.

I was happier. Norah was happier. Norah was safer. And, the thing that I think ties this all together for me, it felt right. Human intuition is a powerful thing.

Once we started bedsharing, I was so happy about how sleep was going for us. But on the flip side, I was also so incredibly angry that for 3 weeks I’d struggled and cried and fretted when I could have cuddled and napped and spent sweet time getting to know my baby better.

Nothing feels very good or works very well when you’re getting 15 minute stretches of sleep, and that includes new mommyhood. I was absolutely furious that those first 3 weeks had been so unnecessarily difficult. I didn’t even know who exactly I was furious at – the hospital that had signs up on the walls instructing me not to sleep with my baby?; the media that said I’d kill her if I snuggled up with her at night?; the baby sleep products supposedly designed to keep baby safe, which seem more likely designed to turn a profit? I was just furious that all these powers-that-be imposed themselves on the initial weeks of motherhood and made it so hard for me.

The subsequent campaign by DCS when Norah was 6 months old did not make me any happier. It would be safe to say it made me even more angry than I already was. And it continues to make me angry that people do not have ready access to information about safe bedsharing.

The problem is, if you don’t know what the safe bedsharing guidelines are – or if you don’t even know safe bedsharing guidelines exist – it makes it awful hard to follow them. This is what really irks me about DCS and their campaign – that families who could otherwise safely bedshare are now engaging in unsafe sleep practices because they don’t know safe bedsharing is an option.

Did you know, for example, that there are people I am related to who believe it is safer to put a baby to sleep on their stomach than to sleep with the baby in bed? And so their babies are sleeping alone on their stomachs; the single greatest SIDS risk factor that I’m aware of, while they remain blissfully unaware that in cultures where bedsharing is the norm, SIDS rates are miniscule or non-existent.

In essence, DCS is putting babies at risk by demonizing parent/infant sleep sharing and refusing to acknowledge safe bedsharing guidelines.

Correction: DCS is putting babies in my family at risk.

I am not currently a fan of DCS. I rather like the babies in my family, and very badly want to see them stay safe.

I’m not advocating for people to sleep with their babies at any time, in any place, under any condition. Clearly, there are situations that aren’t conducive to safe infant sleep.

I’m not advocating for people to sleep with their babies at all, actually. If people want to, and can safely do so, I’m happy to lend advice or talk about my experiences. But bedsharing isn’t for everybody. Some people don’t want to bedshare; some can’t implement the safety guidelines. Whatever. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Some babies like bassinets. Some babies hate them. Some parents can’t stand being away from their babies all night. Some parents can’t stand being touched all night. It’s an individual thing.

I’m not advocating for any particular sleep solution for any particular family, except to say that whatever families choose they should implement safely.

I don’t want to make every family sleep the way my family sleeps. What I do want is for safe bedsharing guidelines to be readily available to the public, the same way that safe crib sleeping guidelines are.

What I want is for the wide base of research supporting safe bedsharing to be acknowledged and accepted, the same way crib safety research is acknowledged and accepted.

What I want is for our officials to recognize the difference between safe and unsafe bedsharing, the same way they recognize the difference between safe and unsafe crib sleeping.

What I want is for our officials to believe that families are intelligent enough to make safe sleep choices when given full information.

What I want is for my researched, deeply thought out choices to be validated as the legitimate choices that they actually are.

Is that too much to ask?

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