How to Rest Easier When All the Experts Say You Shouldn’t: Part 1 on infant sleep safety

infant sleep

As an educator, navigating the path of discussion regarding newborns and safe infant sleep with first-time expectant parents can be a tricky one.

I always imagine it as a trail, perilously traversing the top of a razor-thin ridge. You must choose your footsteps carefully as you make your recommendations to these parents. Not only is a child’s physical safety at stake, but also his emotional well-being, and a new mom’s sanity.And if that weren’t enough, you’ve got the opinions of the villagers – the relatives, the internet, doctors, and friends – that the new family is enlisting for support. And boy, do those villagers have a lot of opinions.

“But my friends are doing that method we read about,” says one couple in my newborn class. “They said they started at the very beginning, keeping their baby in a separate room and letting him learn to soothe himself. They said it was hard at first but now they get lots of sleep.”

Several couples nod in agreement. One woman is openly frowning and fidgeting, though.

“That’s cruel. Babies need warmth. They don’t understand being left alone. We plan to co-sleep with the baby.”

Her partner puts his arm around her. Another woman says she agrees.

In the back of the room, a woman raises her hand. “My doctor says that co-sleeping is dangerous and that we need to give the baby his own sleeping space. That’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics says too.”

Sleep sounds so simple, but there’s so much to consider! SIDS, safety, infant sleep “training,” and whether or not to co-sleep. The issues overlap and dovetail. They also confuse and contradict. What might be good for a baby according to the AAP’s infinitely-researched sleep guidelines or what a well-meaning mother-in-law recommends because it’s what the doctor told her to do when she had her own babies may conflict not just with each other, but each may conflict in different ways with the overwhelming instinct of a new mother. And the conflict breeds insecurity in her burgeoning identity as a parent, and guilt that she’s not doing the right thing for her baby.

Right vs. Right vs. Right

And who is wrong? Surely research doesn’t lie. The mother-in-law’s baby survived to become a father himself. And instinct is part of the reason why humans still exist on the planet. Someone has to be wrong, right?

Mom’s instincts are highly acute at the time of having a baby; probably the nearest thing to super-powers we humans get. In our quest to understand SIDS (which is a “diagnosis of exclusion” meaning that we really don’t know what causes it), the safety net of what to do and avoid in order to make sleep safer for infants had to widen. Many of those instinctual practices were caught in that net because they’re in the unfortunate position of being instinctual, yet don’t necessarily match up with our current age’s social norms and scientific understanding.

For example, the AAP very staunchly recommends no co-sleeping. In fact, their current SIDS marketing campaign is “ABC: Alone. Back. Crib:” “Alone” so that there is no suffocation risk due to pillows, bed clothes, etc., “Back” because research shows that this factor lessens SIDS risk most, and “Crib” so that there are no risks from other children, adults, pets.

The mother-in-law did not co-sleep, not because the medical community said so (the SIDS guidelines weren’t nearly as researched or marketed then). She did it because many doctors at the time put out literature recommending leaving the baby alone so that it did not become “spoiled.” It was during this time that “sleep training” and other methods of putting the baby on sleep and eating schedules developed.

Now, instinctively, the humans of 1,000 years ago would have been horrified at the recommendations of “Alone. Back. Crib.” which would only have meant exposure in a non-climate-controlled conditions, not knowing easily if your child was hungry, or if he was in distress from predators or sickness. Who knows what they would have thought about our need for control with schedules or sleep training. Don’t get me wrong; I imagine those humans of 1,000 years ago did plenty of other things to second guess their own nature-provided instincts. I imagine they rolled their eyes at their own mother-in-laws and listened to doctors give advice that made them feel guilty. I imagine they all had those same differing opinions of my newborn class.

So, when I stand on that steep path, my class looking to me for that one definitive answer which I know does not exist, I try to lead them to reach their own conclusions. I give them the guidelines from the most respected sources, and then I lead them to do some thinking about the issue, the feelings it arouses, and give them a way to sort through it.

In Part 2, we’ll talk through how to go about making those decisions on what’s right for your own family, show you some examples of safe sleep, and discuss some sleep resources.

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