Co-sleeping media coverage walks an odd, fine line

Co-sleeping became a source of intense media fascination across several continents in 2017.

Most stories find their trigger with an infant death owing to the parenting practice of sleeping with infants, commonly known as co-sleeping. Sources include the tearful parents and other parents who support the practice as ideal for bonding with baby and for everyone to get some sleep.

Baby Child Care PaternityMedical officials quoted always criticize co-sleeping as dangerous and lethal.

The news coverage is heartbreaking. For instance, in Colorado, as reported by Denver 7 News, two parents face misdemeanor child abuse charges stemming from the co-sleeping deaths of two of their infant children that happened in 2014 and 2016.

It seems no one is safe from media attention on this issue. reported on a controversy about an episode of The Big Bang Theory that features a scene of Bernadette sleeping with their new baby. A medical official was quoted as criticizing the show, and directed producers to “seek advice of doctors to make sure what they represent in their show is not only safe but accurate.”

Other dramatic coverage was the ticker across the bottom of the screen on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire television program, blaring that 156,000 babies will be in bed with their parent tonight. This number is about a quarter of all babies in the UK.

parents holding baby

Harper’s BAZAAR reported on the practice as a phenomenon in its article headlined: The rise of co-sleeping, should you share a bed with your baby?

This story introduces several interesting societal and philosophical issues into the debate.

Harper’s examines the feminist associations between this form of “attachment parenting,” which also includes cloth diapering, baby wearing and breastfeeding-on-demand. The style of parenting, as the article notes, puts extreme demands on the mother and is a symptom of general feminist backlash.

Harper’s also discusses the controversial notion from feminist author Erica Jong that she calls Motherphilia, which includes co-sleeping and attachment parenting. Motherphilia is linked almost exclusively to those in the upper middle class and drives an economy that “fetishizes motherhood and parenting.” Working single mothers just do what they can to get some sleep, including sleeping with their infants.

Mainstream media reports also cover the issue by highlighting social media posts related to the practice. CBS News (and many other news outlets around the world) reported on a viral Facebook post from a father of his wife sleeping with their two children, an infant and two-year-old, a post that sparked both huge criticism and praise.

In another report, BBC featured a mother whose infant daughter died. At the end of the story, however, we learn that the coroner’s report concluded the baby had suffered damage on her brain from birth that might have stopped her breathing. This information leaves the impression that the whole premise of the story––yet another death from co-sleeping––is unfounded.

The story fails to make a crucial link: that the rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome are greater during co-sleeping.

Why has co-sleeping become such a hot topic in the news?

This question is more relevant when you consider that infant deaths from sudden infant death syndrome in the UK are declining, according to The Lullaby Trust. This decreasing trend has been happening over the last decade, says the trust, largely because of warmer than average temperatures throughout the year, fewer women smoking at the time of delivery and greater awareness of safer sleeping practices.

According to the National Health Service, each year in the UK 300 infant deaths result from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome with about half occurring while the baby was sleeping with a parent.

While the decreasing trends in SIDS are relevant, they are not declared as journalistically important––they are simply not news. The need for drama is especially evidence in research reported by the BBC noted that sharing a bed with a newborn increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome fivefold.

The idea of the act of sleeping resulting in infant death, seemingly at the hands of the mother, is juicy news. The controversy of the practice is also ripe for newsmaking because it pits emotional parents, both for and against the practice, against one another.

And, these news stories always allow for these voices and those of the medical community, furthering the twists and turns in the debate.

You could argue that economic motivations may be driving some of the coverage. Several stories in the UK and US, highlight products like a cover cardboard box for infant, or shaped cushions designed to swaddle babies, or cradle them within their cribs.

8346009325_d0644c8efa_bHowever, economic matters aside, what’s behind the headlines is often a much more complex set of issues that journalists are rarely taking on in the context of the co-sleeping story.

For example, a story in the UK’s Mirror blared: Mum has her two young children taken away and adopted because she let them sleep in her bed. However, it was not the sleeping arrangements alone that warranted the judge’s actions. There were clear signs of physical abuse as well.

Which leads to perhaps the most troubling yet unstated question in this recent spate of news coverage about co-sleeping.

Is sleeping with infants a form of abuse?

Journalists walk a tightrope in approaching co-sleeping stories as highlighting a helpful or dangerous social practice. Stories that suggest a link between abuse and co-sleeping crosses a line about providing impartial and balanced coverage of a complicated societal issue.

Everyone agrees that child abuse is wrong.

But not everyone agrees that sleeping with your baby is wrong.

News stories are wrapped in the tidy news package of the heart and the head; the parent who loved their child so much that they slept close to them and the scientists who admonish with reminders that the data shows otherwise.

In the middle and caught in the media glare made necessary by journalistic balance are confused parents.




Amusing Ourselves While Under the Knife

Members of the media, and perhaps all of us, are fascinated with the idea of people staying awake, or finding themselves awake, during surgery.

The New York Times recently published a story about the phenomenon of patients asking to stay awake and alert during surgeries.

Now the thought of staying awake during surgery makes many of us squirm. Think about how it feels to watch yourself or someone else take a splinter from your finger. Or your toe.



If your surgeon told you that being awake or unconscious would have no impact on your surgical outcome, would you opt to stay awake?


Wide awake surgery is not new. Women routinely have caesarean sections while under local anesthetic and some complete brain surgeries involve keeping the patient awake to test their responses.

What is new is being given the choice. If your surgeon told you that being awake or unconscious would have no impact on your surgical outcome—would you opt to stay awake?

Being a spectator at your own surgery then becomes like any other event in your day, like watching television or cleaning out the cat’s litter box. You pick up a loaf of bread at the bakery, then stop by to see your hernia repaired.

The matter-of-factness of awake surgery is the tone of the New York Times story. At one point in the article, “As he scraped, Dr. Ilyas chatted with Ms. Voynow, trying to keep her calm. From a sound system, the Temptations crooned along, with “The Way You Do the Things You Do…” Life in the operating theatre could simply not get more mundane and less curious.

It almost makes you wonder why this is news.

But it is. Because, as the story goes on to tell, the phenomenon of wide awake surgery is gaining ground. Recovery without anesthetic is faster, costs are lower and patients feel more in control.

The reasons behind people wanting to stay awake during surgery, as reported here, are several. Distrust for authorities is growing and people want to keep their eye on someone they have allowed to cut into their bodies.

However, most patients are simply curious. They want to watch the surgery to see how it’s done, a fascination made more acute and bearable through the graphic surgeries increasingly shown on television and online.

Some surgeons, it would seem, are increasingly not only accepting but likely pleased that their patients are joining with them in appreciating their handicraft.  Other surgeons, the story says, are not as keen on wide-awake surgery, fearing litigation or criticism.

Most interestingly, surgeons are having to attend to the side of humans they rarely need to worry about in the operating theatre—the psychosocial part of dealing with people. Doctors in these wide-awake surgeries need to figure out how to have small talk for three hours with a patient whose boredom may result in their blood pressure rising or them having an unsatisfactorily dull medical experience.

Surgeons and their staff are also having to think on the charm offensive about the language they use in surgeries, so as not to alarm their awake patients with off-handed or everyday expressions common in any field of operations.

This story reminds us that perhaps the idea of “operating theatre” is becoming more like a giant selfie, where the camera turns the lens or at least the performance adds the protagonist to the audience.

As interesting and positive as the New York Times story is, we should consider that other recent news coverage flips quickly towards the negative side of being awake during surgery.

A BBC story is one of many whose news hook surrounds the macabre idea of accidentally waking up during surgery—when you intended to blissfully sleep through it.

The news in this story centers around medical mistakes, when patients are not given enough drugs to stay unconscious during an entire surgery. Worst yet, as the story describes, people wake up during surgery are unable to move and signal their status because of the muscle relaxants they were given.

In the BBC story, they report on a study from the Royal College of Anaesthetists and Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland. They studied three million operations over a period of one year and found than 150 people a year reported being conscious during surgery after being given general anesthesia. They reported that this happens once in every 19,000 operations.

Let’s consider these statistics for a moment.

First, the numbers reported in this story are dizzying and baffling. We first read that 150 people were conscious during surgery in a year. We next read that one in 19,000 people will wake up. That sounds like pretty good odds.

The story is telling us that when you undergo surgery under anesthesia in the UK or Ireland, you have a .005 percent chance of waking up. These are the same odds as dying from a venomous snake or lizard bite in the U.S.

Think of it this way: you are four times more likely to die from being hit by lightning than waking up during surgery.

The centerpiece of the BBC story is the tale from an anonymous patient who woke up during orthodontic surgery at the age of 12 and could “hear voices around me and I realized with horror that I had woken up in the middle of the operation but couldn’t move a muscle. While they fiddled, I frantically tried to decide whether I was about to die.”

Fifteen years later, the patient told researchers, she had nightmares of monsters leaping out to paralyze her.

Such stories build one more piece of uncertainty in those getting ready to have surgery. Add waking up during surgery and not being able to tell anyone to the list of worrying about blood loss, what doctors will find, how long it will take for you to recover and if you might die.

Between The New York Times story about people wanting to stay awake during surgery and the BBC story about people accidentally waking up, you would think that states of consciousness in operating theatres is a new hot topic.

In fact, the idea of the public bearing witness to surgery is not new.

Medical treatment was a public or family event throughout the Renaissance and beyond.



The Old Operating Theatre in the garret of St. Thomas’s Church in Southwark, London, one of the oldest surviving operating theatres.


In most cases, as hospitals were built in the 18th century, the public was shut out of these public surgeries because the theatres were already packed with medical students. Of course, if the gallery was full and you needed something to do, you could just attend a public hanging and execution. Or read about the surgery in your local newspaper.

But in the 20th century, the operating theatre became a private affair. More was known about controlling contaminants which gave surgeons a cozy excuse to excuse outsiders from the serious business of surgery.

By the 1950s, surgeries started being broadcast on television. Skip forward several decades and in 2015, the first brain surgery was broadcast live on the National Geographic channel.

It seems that the spectacle of surgery has come full circle.

From the early days of public observation, to the closed doors of the 20th century, and the recent broadcasting of surgeries, the idea of people watching themselves going under the knife seems like the next, logical step.

And perhaps those who fear unexpectedly waking up should simply consider not going under in the first place.