Jon Anne Willow
Bad Democrat

Barrett’s co-sleeping red herring

By - Nov 22nd, 2011 12:55 am

According to a report released by the City of Milwaukee, Singapore has the lowest infant mortality rate on earth, at just over 2 per 1,000 live births. In our town, around 10.4 infants per 1,000 live births will die. The number breaks down further to about 5 white babies, 13 Hispanic babies and 14 African American babies, proportionally.

Interestingly, in Singapore, 73% of children commonly sleep with their parents. In the U.S. it’s hard to find good data, though one reputable study reports the number at 15%. Around the world, about 65% of families co-sleep at least some of the time, and most countries have lower infant mortality rates than Milwaukee’s goal of 10%.

But I’m jumping ahead. That same report – the City of Milwaukee’s 2010 Fetal Infant Mortality Review (FIMR) – cited six major risk factors in our city’s radically high baby death numbers. Two of them accounted for about 73% of infant mortality. Neither of those was co-sleeping. And the sixth factor was “Other.”

Milwaukee causes of infant death

From the City of Milwaukee’s 2010 FIMR

According to the FIMR, “over half of Milwaukee’s infant mortality crisis depends on how poor the mother and her family are, what the family’s wages are, if the family owns a home and how much that home is worth, and how much education the mother has.” In other words, if you’re poor, and especially if you’re poor and black, your babies are almost three times as likely to die than if you’re white and your zip code is 53211.

Zip code breakdown from Milwaukee's infant mortality report

“A tale of two zip codes” from Milwaukee’s 2010 FIMR

But let’s not let the facts obscure the message. Over at City Hall, the Mayor and his embattled crew, unable to impact a failing school system or fix high unemployment and a simply awful budget, latched on to the first headline-grabbing, high-profile distraction that came along:  a direct response to the Journal Sentinel’s year-long assault on co-sleeping and the obvious correlation between taking your baby to bed and killing it. Never mind that most of the adults involved were uneducated, intoxicated, overweight and/or smokers who fell asleep on overly-soft couches and mattresses and rolled over on their children. The common factor is clear: all of them were sleeping! Never mind that an average of four of the six factors were present in each death. Case closed.

So the City launched an ad campaign, and boy, did it get people talking. A baby sleeping next to a butcher knife. How shocking! How provocative! Yes, said the Mayor, we know it’s raw, but we’ve got to get the message out.

And the message is … Pay no attention to the truth behind the curtain. The fact that over 85% of infant deaths in Milwaukee are caused by substandard (or no) medical care in just a handful of zip codes is unimportant when you can see that we lumped three factors (SIDS, suffocation and overlay) into one generic number we like to call “18% of infant deaths are caused by co-sleeping!” So call the City and get your free Pack ‘n Play right now, or the death of your child will be on your head alone.

It’s disgusting, really. The City of Milwaukee ought to be ashamed of itself for preying on the fears of parents everywhere. This is reactionary at best, an intentional red herring of the most despicable kind at worst.

Milwaukee's co-sleeping red herring

Your baby safely sleeping with you can be just as dangerous.

Personally, Tom, I like you a lot. You’re a smart man with a good heart, if not always the strongest will of your own, and I hope we still chat at the grocery store after you read today’s Bad Democrat. But this is really over the top. You know the answer isn’t free cribs and butcher knives, but ready access to quality health care and an across-the-board increase in prosperity you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of effecting any time soon, through little fault of your own. Besides, people are going to sleep with their kids if they’re so inclined, and that’s simply not going to change, no matter how many pull-quote “testimonials” to the contrary you pepper into that report of yours.

You want to help? Do something meaningful with MPS. Find a way to make your budget work without cutting vital services. Muzzle the bickering on the Common Council floor. Heck, solve world hunger while you’re at it. But for god’s sake, man, pull those ads.

For last week’s Bad Democrat on the Walker recall, click here.

Categories: Bad Democrat

0 thoughts on “Bad Democrat: Barrett’s co-sleeping red herring”

  1. Anonymous says:

    @Jon Anne Willow I get that you don’t like the ads, fine. But “Do something meaningful with MPS” and “the Mayor and his embattled crew, unable to fix a failing school system,” are odd. Mayor Barrett has little to do with MPS. Now he did try to get some control via the state but as it stands now it seems to me like blaming Mayor Barrett for the ills of Milwaukee County. i.e. getting blamed for something he has little or nothing at all to do with?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Of course I’m not blaming Mayor Barrett for the ills of Milwaukee County or MPS. I’m not blaming him for his budget. But I am blaming him for fear-mongering and pointing up in the sky while the city burns at his feet. I used very strong language on purpose – as close as I come to “raw” or provocative. Why? Not because Tom Barrett is a bad, careless man, but because he’s a smart, caring person, and I wanted to reflect this campaign’s level of hysteria from another point of view. I am shocked that he would jump in bed with MJS to drive massive amounts of media attention to the idea that ending co-sleeping is a cure for the unacceptable level of infant deaths among the poorest and least educated of our citizens. Co-sleeping is not the problem here, and to pretend it is glosses over the host of real causes of high infant mortality in Milwaukee County. The City’s action plan has a number of elements, including improving access to health care, the leading cause of infant death in our city. Why not use scarce resources to advocate for a higher number of doctors to accept Badgercare, even to supplement Badgercare payments to OB/GYNs to entice them to take more Medicaid patients?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for saying exactly what I was thinking. My son slept in my bed until he was almost two, and he somehow survived…this ad campaign is twisted and just plain wrong. I cringed when I first saw it, and I honestly thought it was something straight out of the Onion.

    Time to address the real issues.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My wife and I have been saying the exact same thing. Great job Jon Anne.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for opening my eyes to the truth. I’ll ignore the ads and return to storing my knives in my son’s crib while he sleeps.


  6. Anonymous says:

    Try a big red fish. They smell worse but are just as likely to be in bed with your baby. 🙂

  7. Anonymous says:

    Jon Anne, thanks for digging up some relevant facts and making some necessary comparisons. The fearmongering around co-sleeping is oversimplified scapegoating. However, I suppose it is easier than tackling all of the other issues behind Milwaukee’s high infant mortality rate. Too bad. This issue requires much more effort, energy, and understanding.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “Neither of those [top two factors] was co-sleeping. And the sixth factor was ‘Other.'”

    But one category does include “Overlay, Accidental Suffocation” — overlay being when a co-sleeping parent rolls over onto the infant.

    That category’s the 2nd most frequent cause of infant death among black families, and the 3rd among white and Hispanic families.

    So your complaint seems to be that the TERM “co-sleeping” isn’t used to label the category.

    But of course co-sleeping, in itself, isn’t what kills the infant — just the overlay which sometimes happens during co-sleeping, and wouldn’t happen if co-sleeping were avoided. So the category is correctly labeled.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this.
    When babies were more commonly dying in cribs than they are today, people looked at ways to make crib sleeping safer–put babies to sleep on their backs, in a crib with a tight-fitting mattress and no fluffy bedding, no bumpers, no drop-sides. Politicians did not start screaming, “Cribs are dangerous! Get your children out of cribs!”

    But that’s exactly what is happening now, with beds. Babies have bed-shared throughout human history; the separate sleeping surface is very recent, and not universal worldwide even in wealthy countries. Now, perhaps, our modern beds and habits make bed-sharing riskier than it would have been centuries ago–we have pillow-topped, chemically impregnated mattresses on bed frames high off the ground (or we sleep on couches or poorly constructed futons), we don’t universally breastfeed, we’re more likely to be obese, we take medications that might alter our reflexes. We also don’t always plan to bed-share, but after the 11 billionth night waking, we end up doing so.

    But nobody in a position of power is saying, “here’s how to bed share more safely.” Instead they’re telling a whole lot of people they’re endangering their babies.

    I’d like to see the data separated by risk factor–I’m willing to bet that the death rate of *breastfeeding* infants sleeping with their sober, nonsmoking mothers on firm, properly sized adult beds, is minimal. It still happens–SIDS can happen in a crib, swing, car seat, even in a hospital, despite all safety precautions–but not very often.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Lack of education and money = little or no prenatal care, smoking, AODA, and premature or sick babies many of whom don’t survive long. True in rural areas with large migrant poor populations and in the cities.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I’m not a huge fan of the campaign but one thing is for sure, it has people talking. The problem is that in the pro-bed sharing community, the defensive and irrational voices are somehow the loudest – and there is a sh*tload of myths being repeated over and over as if they are gospel with all the believers in such a fevor that critical thinking skills

    When we talk about infant death, we are doing a disservice to cherry-pick the stats. It’s intellectually dishonest and we owe our readers much more than that. For example, there are lots of opinion pieces, like yours, selecting out statistics which fit their POV and an audience who by and large will never know the difference. The mean age of children for the Singapore study you refer to was 3.6 – long past the age of risk for sleep related death. It’s a common tactic for the pro-bedsharing community to grab on to another country, despite a huge lack of understanding in the pitfalls of international epidemiology and lack of a world-wide protocal in how they investigate infant death. If you want to talk about Singapore and bedsharing, then why not Angola, Afghanistan, Niger, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Chad and Nigeria who all have high rates of bedsharing as well as astronomical infant mortality? It’s apples to oranges and someplace we should not go in honest journalism.

    SIDS, suffocation and overlay are “lumped together” because they should be. They are sleep related infant deaths. Did you know that many researchers are carefully considering that true SIDS may be very rare; that it is impossible to tell the difference between SIDS and suffocation by anatomical findings alone? Some studies have shown that less than 3 to 5% are found in low risk environments (in a safe crib, on their back, no blankets or other soft objects).

    Yes, infant mortality from any cause is directly related to access to healthcare and socioeconmic factors. There is no doubt about that but if you think you are immune just because of your zip code, think again. The poorer you are, the more likely your children are to die from drowning or in a fire, in fact, any accidental cause – but we don’t smugly ignore water and fire safety just because our family makes 75k. We don’t tell ourselves “Oh gee, I’m sober so my children don’t have to use car seats.” Safety messages don’t just belong to those “other people” even though they are the ones most likely to need them. The are an across-the-board message that apply to all of us.

  12. Anonymous says:

    *that critical thinking skills have flown out the window.

  13. Anonymous says:

    You are right, Jon Anne, this does seem like a smokescreen, but can any politician funded by campaign contributions attack the root of the healthcare/infant mortality issue?

    As you have pointed out, complications of premature birth cause more than half of Milwaukee’s infant mortality total. In addition, the economic costs are staggering for premature babies that survive. With universal prenatal care, our shameful infant mortality rate (and related costs) would soon drop to levels seen in the rest of the developed world.

    It is much easier to talk about laying babies on their backs and not sleeping with them than it is to discuss income inequality, or its affect on healthcare (education, longevity…). Your zip code comparison makes the point succinctly.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I do not believe the the advertisment was appropriate. However, I strongly believe that cosleeping in Milwaukee is causing too many deaths. How many have reported now, at least 7? It may not be the leading cause, but it is 100% preventable. Before I go further, I would like to say that I think cosleeping is a great way to bond with your baby and develop that relationship. However, when it is done in the absence of responsability, accountability, and education, it can kill. A baby should not be sleeping on a soft mattress with pillows, blankets, and no side rails. There is a reason why cribs lack all of those things. Sleep with your baby on a fitted sheet, or a blanket on the floor, or a 3 sided crib next to your bed. BE SMART. Women need to realize the dangers that are associated with cosleeping when it is not done correctly. Instead of sending women fearing for their childs life, we need to work on educating them so that if they choose to cosleep, it is safe

  15. Anonymous says:

    I agree. In this community, cosleeping is dangerous (lack of education certainly contributing). Accidental suffication? That can come from cosleeping–whether the infant gets stuck between the bed and the wall (which happened in one of the reported cosleeping deaths), or if the baby rolls off of the bed and lands on his/her face or by a pile of clothes that can block their moths and prevent them from breathing. Those who say that cosleeping is 100% safe are misinformed. It is safe when the parent is aware of the risks, works to reduce those risks, and still uses discretion.

  16. Anonymous says:

    The map is shaped like a breast, and 53211 is on the nipple. Clearly, breastfeeding DOES protect babies from dying.

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