Like many other mom topics, co-sleeping is one of those things that tend to inspire very strong opinions. Some mothers swear by the "family bed" approach while many experts say it puts children, particularly infants, at risk of suffocation. But the dangers linked to co-sleeping have prompted officials to look at criminal charges for negligent parents. Which U.S. states have concrete co-sleeping laws? It's really more about the enforcement of existing laws.
First, co-sleeping for many families can be a great thing. It makes breastfeeding easier, and plenty of families use bedtime as a way to bond. But there are dangers. The Centers for Disease Control, according to Lawyers.com, found more than four times as many infants have died recently from strangulation or being smothered in bed than 20 years ago. Many of these deaths are the result of what the CDC refers to as "overlay," an adult rolling on top of a baby in a deep sleep and killing them. These tragic accidents, classified under Sudden Infant Death Syndrome deaths, are the leading cause of death in infants under 1, according to the CDC.
When it comes to co-sleeping deaths, Lawyers.com points out there are two general schools of thought. The first says education about the dangers of co-sleeping is the best way to protect kids. Others advocate for criminal prosecution for bodily injury, manslaughter or appropriate charge.
According to Lawyers.com:
When alcohol or drugs are involved, prosecutors take a firmer stand on the issue. Last month, the Minnesota grandma, Tina Miller-Steiner, was charged with two counts of manslaughter in the smothering death of her grandson Evan. Police say she mixed alcohol with prescription drugs before she fell asleep on the baby.
There are plenty of other instances of parents and caregivers being charged after killing an infant as a result of co-sleeping under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
States don't need specific legislation to criminalize co-sleeping when there are existing laws that allow parents to be charged when prosecutors feel it's appropriate. And according to Parenting.com, prosecutors in Indiana, Utah, and Texas have all brought charges against co-sleeping parents who they believe endangered their children.
But drugs and alcohol aside, co-sleeping advocates argue that having a parent close by not only provides emotional support, but protects their lives better in the event of an emergency. Here's how Jan Hunt explains it for The Natural Child Project:
Gaps in breathing are normal during the early months of infancy, and it is likely that the mother's breathing provides important cues to her infant, reminding him to take a breath following exhalation, preventing a SIDS situation from developing. Even if this reminder system fails, the mother is nearby to help by arousing the infant. A breastfeeding mother and baby tend to have coordinated sleeping and dreaming cycles, making her keenly sensitive to her baby. If she is sleeping close by, she can awaken if her baby is having difficulty. But if the baby is alone, this type of life-saving intervention cannot take place.
And while that might have been her experience, and even the experience of all of the other mothers she knows, there are still those who argue co-sleeping isn't worth the proven risk to infants.
According to The Scientific Parent:
Despite the overwhelming body of research showing the deadly risks of co-bedding, many lactation consultants and some prominent anthropologists strongly believe co-bedding reduces the risk of death and increases the length of breastfeeding. While co-bedding may increase the length of breastfeeding and breastfeeding has been shown to independently reduce an infant’s risk of SIDS, the risks of sleeping in an adult bed outweigh the benefits gained by breastfeeding.
No matter where you stand on the issue, no one wants to be told how to raise their family, which is why it's hard to imagine a politician trying to legislate how parents and children sleep. But in cases of death where a parent or caregiver can be proven to have been negligent, they can be charged with a crime.
No one said parenting was easy.