I embrace maternal instinct when it comes to the topic of bed sharing with a newborn. Coming from an immigrant family where cosleeping and bed sharing are not even terms — it’s just what you do and it’s how you show love — and where children don’t have separate rooms, let alone separate beds, I am constantly amazed at how our culture and society have destroyed our families’ abilities to rely on their instincts. As a midwife, I advise my clients to follow their instincts and make an informed safe sleep decision based on their set of risk factors. If they don’t feel comfortable bed sharing, then they know how to use a crib safely; if they do feel comfortable bed sharing, then they are equipped do so safely. Every family deserves the opportunity to make an informed decision.
In alignment with American Academy of Pediatrics’ spokesperson Dr. Rachel Moon, Dane County Public Health, American Family Children’s Hospital and Kohl’s Department Store’s nonprofit arm have launched an anti-bed-sharing campaign in Dane County featuring billboards, bus advertisements, and radio spots that tell parents to “Share the room, not the bed.” This campaign has been launched in an effort to reduce sudden unexpected infant death and sudden infant death syndrome rates, rates that disproportionately impact the African-American community in Dane County.
However, in Rachel Moon’s public talk on June 25 in Madison, she acknowledged that SUIDs rates in Europe and Japan are less than in the U.S. even though bed sharing in much of Europe and Japan is the norm.
Moon never addresses an even bigger inconsistency in her campaign, namely, why do low-resource communities outside of the U.S., places like Kenya and India that commonly practice bed sharing, show no infant mortality cases of SIDS and SUIDs, despite extreme poverty in those countries? It’s not that babies in Kenya and India aren’t dying; international research cites malaria, diarrhea, infection, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and lack of access to health care as primary reasons for infant deaths in low-resource communities outside the U.S.
The larger question is what do we do to OUR poor and to OUR people of color that disproportionately kills black and brown babies in the U.S.? Are there larger societal and systemic issues surrounding SUIDs? We talk about inequalities in health care but we don’t talk about who is perpetuating those inequalities — we don’t talk about the fact that for many poor people the nearest place to buy food is a gas station; we don’t talk about how highways divide black and brown neighborhoods into pieces; we don’t talk about the overuse of toxic chemicals and pesticides in poor neighborhoods; we don’t talk about maternity and partner employment policies that sabotage breast-feeding; and we don’t talk about disproportionate mass incarceration that sentences our families to single-headed households. What is really killing our babies? Is it really bed sharing?
Black and brown communities all over the U.S. are riddled by regulation of women’s bodies, poverty, violence, oppression, and internalized, individualized and institutionalized racism. Why are we attempting to eradicate one of the few powers that a poor mother or mother of color has to own her own body, bond with her child, promote nonviolence in the home, breast-feed her child with more ease, respond quickly to her child’s needs, and initiate attachment and closeness that will last that child’s entire lifetime?
I am saddened by the immense personnel and financial resources allocated towards anti-bed-sharing campaigns when so much more could be done to sustain the health of families, especially poor families and families of color. Campaigns that would sustain the health and well-being of mothers and babies would promote affection and attachment, provide information about ways to bed share safely, promote breast-feeding, support maternal and infant mental health, address violence and profiling in our communities, promote access to equitable health care that treats women with dignity and respect, and empower mothers to parent their babies in the ways they feel best.
I refuse to support a campaign that 1) isn’t evidence-based 2) doesn’t support maternal instinct 3) isn’t proven to save babies’ lives and 4) targets black and brown families through strategically placed billboards and public transportation signs, questioning our capacity to make unique, informed decisions for ourselves and our families. Why do white, middle-class families get to make informed decisions in our communities but black and brown families get a homogenous, one-size-fits-all message without real discussion?
Tehmina Islam, of Madison, is a licensed midwife.