Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sleepless in St. Petersburg

Fresh from suggesting that pretty much every child who drowns in the state of Florida is, in fact, a victim of neglect, Manatee County Sheriff’s Major Connie Shingledecker, who chairs the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee, has another target: Co-sleeping.

There is considerable controversy over co-sleeping, as there is over many things involved in child rearing. In the United States, a lot of medical authorities, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, discourage it. Even advocates support it only if parents adhere to a list of common-sense precautions. News stories that emphasize the urgent need for such precautions, and include the perspective of those who think co-sleeping is beneficial and those who feel the benefits never outweigh the risk, perform a valuable service.

It would have been nice if such a story had appeared in the St. Petersburg Times a week ago instead of what actually turned up in that newspaper. Judging by the comments from Shingledecker and everyone else quoted, you would never know there is more than one side to this story. You’d never know that some advocates argue that mothers and babies were “designed” for co-sleeping, and they think it can benefit both. More important, the story went well beyond what could best be described as the cons and cons of co-sleeping into a series of finger-wagging attacks on any parent who engages in the practice. The message from almost everyone quoted in the story is that any parent who shares a bed with her infant is a selfish lout.

Co-sleeping is, in fact, the norm in much of the world, often by necessity, but also sometimes by cultural custom. According to a more balanced story in The New York Times, “some ethnic groups, especially Asians and Latin Americans, consider the North American norm of relegating infants to separate rooms to be coldhearted and psychologically harmful.” But in the St. Petersburg paper, the only hint that this might be a cultural issue comes when the story says that one doctor “doesn’t believe it’s a cultural issue as some advocates assert.

"’People just out of habit, when the baby is crying, they bring them into bed,’" the St. Petersburg pediatrician said. ‘It's a convenience. It takes a lot of effort to break them out of the habit.’

But he was outdone by Florida’s leading advocate of a take-the-child-and-run approach, Andrea Moore who heads a group called Florida’s Children First. Said Moore: “For some parents it’s an issue where the parents want the warmth and contact, but it’s based on more of the parent’s need, not the child’s need.”

Such a comment is especially harmful coming from someone with as much influence as Moore. For some Florida reporters, Moore is the Godsource – she turns up in almost every story, her words are viewed as Holy Writ and dissent is marginalized, or doesn’t appear at all.

According to The New York Times, in America, “Black infants were four times as likely as white infants to share an adult’s bed, and Asian Americans were almost three times as likely.” So I have to wonder: Does Ms. Moore believe that Blacks and Asians are inherently more selfish than her fellow middle-class whites?

The St. Petersburg story combines horror stories and data about the raw number of co-sleeping deaths – plus speculation from Maj. Shingledecker that the “real” number of such deaths is “huge.” But the data draw no distinction between the alcoholic who falls asleep in a drunken stupor and then rolls over on the baby next to her on the couch, and people who take proper precautions. That’s like reporting on children killed in auto accidents without breaking out children killed by drunk drivers and children who were not properly strapped into their carseats. (And, just as in the story discussed on this Blog last week, about drownings, the story includes an example of a death in foster care labeled “neglect” that, in fact, sounds more like an accident.)

The data also offer no comparison between the raw numbers and the number of parents who engage in co-sleeping, so it is impossible to tell the actual level of risk and how it compares to other everyday risks.

The New York Times also cited those who think co-sleeping is always dangerous. But, apparently based on the quaint notion that readers should hear all sides and make up their own minds, it also noted that

Dr. James J. McKenna, head of the Mother-Child Sleep Lab at the University of Notre Dame, an advocate of mothers and babies sharing beds, drew the opposite conclusion. Baby deaths from suffocation "are in extreme situations — being with Dad on the couch when he's half-drunk," Dr. McKenna said, while the comfort and closeness babies get from sleeping with their mothers makes them "more independent and able to deal with stress better.”

And it’s not as if Florida’s self-proclaimed “best newspaper” has never heard of Dr. McKenna’s Lab. In a box accompanying the story, the lab is cited as a source for some safety tips for those who, to use the St. Petersburg paper’s word, “insist” on co-sleeping.

A good case can be made against co-sleeping, on grounds that overtired parents may not take the proper precautions every time. What is disturbing, however, is the rush to assume the worst of any parent who disagrees – the attitude of the Andrea Moores of this world, who say, in effect: if you’re not exactly the kind of parent I am, you must be stupid or selfish or both.

At a minimum, editors might want to give careful consideration to diversifying the points of view in such stories. Not that they should jump to conclusions. Perhaps they could sleep on it.