FOX News says Infant Co-sleeping Deaths Linked to Formula Feeding

The internet has been abuzz lately about a recent FOX News report that has linked co-sleeping deaths to formula feeding. The report, which I found to be quite balanced (though somewhat sensational), is based on a number of co-sleeping or bed sharing deaths in the city of Milwaukee and the city’s message that there is no such thing as safe bed sharing.

I first read about the report from a Tweet by Allie from No Time for Flash Cards. Annie from PhDinParenting quickly posted the FOX News video for all to view and discuss.

The City of Milwaukee Health Department is currently running this ad – with a headstone in place of a headboard – to discourage ALL parents from co-sleeping with their babies. “For too many babies last year, this was their final resting place.” I guess they figure fear mongering is better than educating. As a mother who made an educated decision to co-sleep with my children, I find it quite offensive.

Then there is a TV ad that the state of Indiana is running (more fear mongering) to convince parents that they only place a baby should sleep is in a crib which is plain disturbing.

The FOX News report does a good job of representing both sides of the co-sleeping debate and even interviewed Dr. James McKenna, who literally wrote the book on safe co-sleeping.

The report revealed (although not until the very end of the video) a surprising finding, that in all of the Milwaukee co-sleeping cases they reviewed for 2009 and so far in 2010, 100% of the babies were formula fed. McKenna predicted the outcome and even goes so far as to state, “I really actually think that breastfeeding is a prerequisite for bed sharing.”

The blogger at The Babydust Diaries qualifies the formula finding:

This isn’t to say that the formula caused the death or that formula fed parents don’t care but there are some specific circumstances that can make these kids more prone to bed-related deaths2. The video mentions positioning and waking of the mother but also the frequent wakings of the child. Formula takes longer to digest and thus those children sleep for longer stretches than breastfed babies and often sleep deeper – causing an increase in SIDS deaths as well.

The Fearless Formula Feeder wrote about her thoughts on the Fox report in Cosleeping and formula feeding: a tale of two scapegoats. She particularly took offense at “the immediate and inaccurate battle cry against formula and formula feeding” on Twitter. She suggests rephrasing Tweets from things like:
“FORMULA FEEDING, not alcohol or soft bedding, at root of bed-sharing baby deaths!”
and
“Formula feeding was the common factor in these poor babies’ deaths!”
to:
“Breastfeeding could protect against cosleeping deaths”
or
“Formula feeding parents should be alerted to cosleeping risks”

The Fearless Formula Feeder adds:

If you watch the video, it is clear that bottle feeding was indeed associated with 100% of the cosleeping death cases in Milwaukee. …

However, the sensationalist news report also mentioned, in passing, some other important factors. Like that the majority of the babies lived in low-income, black families. And that 75% lived in households where smoking was a factor, and many had parents who engaged in drug use or drank frequently. Or that a number of the cases, though originally classified as cosleeping deaths, were later ruled as other causes of death, like SIDS.

Although the City of Milwaukee Health Department would like it to be a black and white issue, there are clearly shades of gray. The medical examiner reports in Milwaukee County showed that the vast majority of co-sleeping deaths were African-American babies living in what the Black Health Coalition calls “chaotic homes.” McKenna agrees that there is an “overwhelming predominance of deaths in the lower socioeconomic environment.” Yet the city refuses to acknowledge and address the complexities.

The Baby Dust Diaries blogger commented on this as well:

The other issue brought up in the piece is about socioeconomic status. Statistically, more bed-related deaths occur in poorer and often unstable homes. Once again this is a correlation not a causal relationship. I was flabbergasted at the health department woman’s assertion that she shouldn’t even have to think about different types of people. Seriously? How do you serve a population and remain blind to the demographics? I really liked the woman from the community program [Black Health Coalition]. She, correctly, points out that ignoring the reality of the situations at home only drives these already under-served people further away from the services that can help them.

She also points out that there’s a difference between a mom who brings her baby into bed as a last resort and falls asleep and a mom who has done her research and knows how to safely bed share – like she did, as did I. “It isn’t a last resort of the exhausted, but a well-thought out, planned, and safe situation.”

So is it fair, as the city of Milwaukee and the state of Indiana suggest, to say nobody should ever co-sleep? Or how about what James McKenna said, that only breastfeeding moms should be allowed to co-sleep? Or should we instead try to raise awareness about the risks AND benefits of co-sleeping for both breastfed and formula-fed babies and the increased risk for formula-fed babies so that parents can make decisions based on research rather than on fear?

For more information about safe bed sharing, visit:

Cross-posted on BlogHer

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26 thoughts on “FOX News says Infant Co-sleeping Deaths Linked to Formula Feeding

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  2. I wonder what effect baby-wearing and other oxytocin-increasing/bonding behaviors has on co-sleeping safety? I don’t think it’s fair to say that only breastfeeding mothers can safely co-sleep. I think mothers who are very aware of their babies and themselves are safer, no matter how they feed.

  3. I think Summer has a good point about bonding/oxytocin. Although I’m certain breastfeeding has some protective factors against bedtime death, I think one thing that McKenna shows in his research is that breastfeeding mothers are more aware of their infants at night (due to the bonding that comes with breastfeeding) and that the babies adjust their breathing patterns to the mother, again due to the bonding.

    So if you can’t breastfeed for whatever reason, but still form a strong attachment with your child through other bonding mechanisms, it stands to reason that you could safely co-sleep.

    I think the idea of government regulating parenting practices is rather absurd. It seems to me that most folks sleep with their babies at some point and most just don’t mention it because of the stigma. I happily co-slept with both of my children and it not only helped me be more rested, but helped them feel safe and secure at night–a win-win situation if you ask me!!

  4. Amy,
    you did a great job summing up the information and I appreciate your bringing this information forward.

    I did breastfeed and co-sleep with both my kids. Personally, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

    It is a complicated situation I agree and there are other factors there beyond bottle feeding, it seems like a combination of these factors together contributes to the SID.

  5. First off, babies were invented before cribs, so it out to be that co-sleeping is the natural thing for a baby to do. I don’t know the history of cribs, but it seems logical that they could have been invented not only for the comfort of mom and dad, but likely also for the safety of baby during the day and maybe also at night.

    To flat out say that no one should co-sleep at anytime is plain naive. We were not a co-sleeping family, but that is not to say our son never slept in our bed. He often did for 20 minutes to several hours, usually in the later morning hours or for nap time. It is pleasurable to both mothers and babies to sleep together from time to time and to deny this is to deny our humanity.

    And I absolutely agree that the social and economic situation of the families in the aforementioned studies is of critical importance. If a mother is drinking or using drugs after baby is born, what also is the likelihood that it happened before birth? What are the chances for a “last resort” co-sleep on a baby that has undiagnosed fetal alcohol syndrome and a drunk or drugged mom and or dad? Or what if mom is totally clean, but just worked a 12 hour shift and baby spent the day with her smoking aunt. Exhausted mom plus at risk baby, also don’t make for a safe co-sleep.

    Their are so many factors involved that I believe the money should be spent on helping at risk families get and or stay on their feet, but out right trying to control the way society as a whole raises babies is not appropriate.

  6. Amy, this is a really well written post – you presented so many facts and sides to this issue without sensationalism or alienation! I also find Summer’s comment really valid – it seems logical that awareness is about attachment. Thanks for the fairly presented and excellently summarized news!

  7. As someone who made the informed decision to co-sleep, I’d like to thank you for this. I think it’s important to fully understand what sleep situations put babies at risk, and why. We can respect parents and allow them to make educated decisions based on the facts. The fear-mongering represented by the tombstone ad is not only insulting, it’s unnecessary and unhelpful.

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  9. Wow, I feel like people who have formula fed are taking offense to this. I don’t think it was anyones intentions to offend. I think they were trying to say that evidence shows breastfeeding reduces the chances of death during co-sleeping, thats it. They weren’t saying anyone is a bad mom for not breastfeeding. Stop taking offense they are trying to educate people to save babies lives, is that really a bad thing?

  10. I co-slept with two of my children when they were infants and they are fine. This actually SAVED my daughter, who died 3 times in the first 9 days of her life because she would stop breathing. Because I was afraid I would not hear her if she stopped breathing when she was in her crib, I kept her lying on my stomach when I slept. Turns out that was the best thing I could have done, since mother’s breathing stimulates infant’s breathing. After she was out of danger I just kept her with me and the next one as well.

  11. I too co-slept with my child. First I breast fed her in the lying down position a lot and we would both drift off. I too, had a fear of not being able to hear her if she stopped breathing. After I stopped breastfeeding and began bottle feeding, she just stayed there. The only problem is – she’s 7 now and she still won’t sleep in her own bed.

    I think it’s best the choice be left up to the educated mother. The ad with the headstone on the bed is certainly fear mongering and in poor taste.

  12. I must the the antithesis of what this blog stands for. My son is 7 years old and was FF from day one. Hes healthy as a horse. He didnt cosleep with me and my husband as well the marital bed is just that. He slept in our room for the first 3 months of his life in a seperate bassinet as we wanted him near in case he woke up in the middle of the night and needed one of us. If the conveniance of having the baby near for the first few monthes than put a bassinet in your room they even have ones that can attach to the side of the bed and a child should be sleeping in their own room by the time they are a year old. It just been my experience that children of the AP parenting mind set seem to be clingy and have no sense of independence or self reliance that we should be teaching our kids so they will healthy adults. No way would I let my 7 year old sleep in the bed with me and my husband, it can be a marriage killer. To each their own.

  13. What a great post, informative and balanced. Thank you! I wish I could have said ti better myself.
    As a public health practitioner, it drives me crazy that these blanket statements that all co-sleeping is deadly. I understand why messages are crafted the way they are, but it seems so unethical to stigmatize a practice that is natural and normal under natural and normal conditions.

  14. Thanks for the great post. I just wanted to thank you for doing such a nice job on these types of issues. I get so much information from you on what’s going on in the natural birth/co-sleeping/breastfeeding world and I really appreciate it. I figured it was time I finally left a comment and said thank you!

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  16. Regarding Nonapaparent’s post,

    I agree with you! A marital bed is for mommy and daddy, not for babies or children. Keeping the infant in the same room for the first few months of life is important, but NOT the same bed. This article was interesting to read, but I would like to see REAL facts and statistics from professionals not what other people have said or posted.

  17. I breastfed my daughter and she still died in my bed. Cosleeping is NOT worth the risk. I don’t know if my daughter died because she shared my bed, but I will tell you this, it was not worth the torture I felt blaming myself following her death for years.

  18. Megan, my daughter died of SIDS, 3rd “co-sleeping” death in 2010. I believe Milwaukee needs to update their facts. Details, like the correct spelling of our last name, just might be one immediate red flag. Some reports stated I was drinking, also needs correcting. Had a glass of champagne, it was my birthday, and I had it with dinner. My midewife, Gail Sternkopff, understood my motivation and need to breastfeed my oldest daughter, Faith who was born in 1998. I breastfed my second daughter, Jenna for fourteen months. Megan was introduced to formula two months before her death. We had started supplementing more and more, but I was also breastfeeding her. Mr. Stevenson from the JS wrote a letter to me acknowledging Megan’s death was ruled as SIDS, and that he would show more respect when reporting baby deaths in the future. But then I read columns like this one I wonder what info the writer has in our case. And are the updated facts from the other cases also shared. I think the public should know that the Milw. Medical Examiner told me in January that one of the previous cases was SIDS also. Meanwhile, all three were being reported as co-sleeping. The third ended up being child abuse. The autopsy report clearly states Megan was well-nourished, well hydrated and had no signs of abuse. My children were seen daily by many, as I take them to work with me. I feel by scrambling details and lighting these poor babies deaths to fit their campaign, the City of Milwaukee has stolen the need for SIDS Awareness and Research that we families need. My Megan was not rolled onto and the only comfort I have ever found was that she was near. I thank God that we were there with her and she didn’t suffer. Milwaukee has only made this all harder. I do have to thank Brad Hicks (channel 6), he came to my house before he did the special. Hicks should have gone into details more, but thankful for his work. I wish someone would contact all the families and verify what the JS reported. I don’t doubt errors in other stories.

    If any other SIDS families find this…

    I wish you all peace.

    Megan Michelle’s Mommy

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