Sleeping with baby may make sense

July 18, 1997

Medicine and mountains: both are benefiting from anthropology studies

INFRA-RED cameras installed in the bedrooms of families in north-east England could shed light on modern sleeping behaviour and determine whether or not it is safer for a baby to sleep alone or with its parents.

The American anthropologist James McKenna has argued that continuous mother-infant contact is vital to the well-being of babies, and that this contact is particularly important during the night. He suggests that co-sleeping arrangements might protect babies against cot death or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

In non-western cultures, newborn infants commonly sleep with their mothers. Intricate physiological and behavioural relationships have been demonstrated to exist between mother and infant co-sleeping pairs which could be protective to the child. But the theory is controversial and as much evidence exists supporting the opposite view, that those infants sharing a bed with their parents may be more at risk of SIDS.

Anthropologists in Durham are filming parents and babies who do sleep together at night to learn more about the practice and its implications. Forty families are taking part in the research.

Helen Ball, who is leading the project from Durham University, says the study was comparing the impact on infants of sleeping with their mothers only, compared to sleeping with both parents. Although both arrangements constitute minority behaviours, the latter is more common.

"Throughout our evolutionary history humans were never left alone to sleep," Dr Ball says. "It is only very recently, in Victorian times, that babies began to sleep in their own beds, often in their own rooms, and that this rapidly became part of modern culture."

But the western idea of the infant as an independent entity may be out of touch with evolution. In the vast majority of cultures, Dr Ball says, babies sleep with their mothers and there is evidence that the child's and parent's physiological behaviour becomes synchronised in the night. Heart beat, breathing rates, body temperature and brain waves seem to be closely influenced by the mother, all factors that could have a protective effect for the child.

Dr Ball's hypothesis is that the presence of the father in the bed will influence the pattern of mother-infant interactions during the night. "One might predict that the presence of the father means the baby is doubly monitored by both parents during the night," she says. "Alternatively, the baby could experience less monitoring if the both father and mother assume that the other parent is paying attention." Dr Ball has discovered, through her research, that none of the new parents studied had, before the birth, anticipated co-sleeping with their babies. However, at the post-natal interviews more than two-thirds were at least occasionally co-sleeping. It was found that all breast-feeding babies co-slept with their parents.

The videos made during the research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, are being analysed to explore sleeping positions, the orientation of the baby and proximity to parents. The researchers will monitor the frequency and duration of parent-infant interactions, the sequencing of feeding, soothing and position change. If the research shows that children who sleep with their parents have a better chance of surviving to adulthood, the finding could slot neatly into other evolutionary theories.

Caroline Ross, a biological an-thropologist from the Roehampton Institute, says: "The behaviour mechanisms that have developed in western societies may be unnatural in an evolutionary context."

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