Does Milwaukee's Campaign Against Sleeping With Babies Go Too Far? : Shots - Health News Eleven babies have died while sleeping next to adults this year in Milwaukee. The city's health department has started an anti-bed-sharing campaign aimed at preventing more infant deaths, but critics say the grim images demonize parents rather than educating them.
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Does Milwaukee's Campaign Against Sleeping With Babies Go Too Far?

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Does Milwaukee's Campaign Against Sleeping With Babies Go Too Far?

Does Milwaukee's Campaign Against Sleeping With Babies Go Too Far?

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Milwaukee, three children have died in the past three weeks due to the same cause, according to authorities. It's what's known as co-sleeping, infants sleeping in the same bed as adults. The deaths follow an aggressive and controversial ad campaign that was designed to get parents to place their babies in cribs. From member station WUWM in Milwaukee, LaToya Dennis has more.

LATOYA DENNIS, BYLINE: Ads on bus shelters in Milwaukee show a startling image: Babies asleep face down in adult beds with what's best described as a meat cleaver.

BEVAN BAKER: We entered into this with the understanding that we had a guerilla tactic here, and it might make some uncomfortable.

DENNIS: That's Bevan Baker, the city's health commissioner. And he says yes, the ads are controversial, but he hopes the message is clear: co-sleeping or bed sharing just isn't safe. Milwaukee's health department is hoping the message helps reverse a statistic it's not proud of: 5.4 white babies die for every thousand born. That's compared to 8.7 Hispanic infants and 14.1 African American babies. Baker says there are a number of reasons for such a disparity.

BAKER: It may be access to health care, prenatal care, supportive housing, transportation, unemployment, environmental concerns.

DENNIS: But still, so far this year, 11 babies have died while sleeping next to adults. Baker argues that stopping parents from bed sharing could reduce the infant mortality rate by 15 to 20 percent. But not everyone agrees co-sleeping is a bad thing. Jessica Piorier and her boyfriend have slept with their nine-month-old son Oscar since he was born.

JESSICA PIORIER: We have a crib. He's never slept in it, but we put one on the registry, even though we intended to co-sleep before he was even born.

DENNIS: Piorier says they knew they wanted their son close for nursing purposes, and just for peace of mind. For safety, they recently installed rails on the side of their bed to prevent their son from rolling off. And, Piorier says, if either she or her boyfriend have been drinking, they sleep on the couch. She says for them, bed sharing is the way to go, and adds more parents seem to be doing it.

PIORIER: I started talking to other moms, and we were sort of, oh, how long is he sleeping? You know, is he sleeping through the night? Is he sleeping a few hours? How's he nursing? That sort of thing. And it's like, oh, he's nursing great and he's sleeping. And then I'd lean in and I'd whisper: Well, we're co-sleeping. Oh, my gosh. We do, too. You know, everyone would be like - it was like this secret that we had that we thought made us bad parents.

DENNIS: Piorier takes issue with Milwaukee's aggressive campaign because it suggests that people who co-sleep are bad parents. James McKenna is director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab at Notre Dame and says educating parents about bed sharing would be a better way to tackle the problem.

JAMES MCKENNA: The mother and baby are arranged differently in the bed when they breastfeed. They're more sensitized to each other's behavior and physiology. They sleep lighter. That altogether makes it safer.

DENNIS: McKenna criticizes Milwaukee officials for demonizing parents who co-sleep with infants. But health commissioner Bevan Baker says breastfeeding or not, bed sharing is dangerous. And says he's fine with being portrayed as the villain in this fight. His department has set a goal of reducing the infant mortality rate by at least 10 percent over the next five years. And he thinks that putting infants to sleep in a crib is a good place to start.

For NPR News, I'm LaToya Dennis in Milwaukee.

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