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.
Medical 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. KXAN.com 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.
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.
However, 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.