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Six months ago, Melissa Nichols brought her baby girl, Arlo, home from the hospital. And she immediately had a secret.

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The mom guilt starts early, I guess. Across town, first-time mom Candyce Hubbell has the same secret — and she hides it from her pediatrician. Does raising kids have to be stressful? Is it really dangerous for babies to sleep with mom? Do chores have to be a fight?

Over the next month, NPR travels around the world for ideas to make parenting easier. Sign up for NPR Health's newsletter to get the stories delivered to your inbox. The way these moms talk about their secret, you might think they're putting their babies in extreme danger.

Perhaps drinking and driving with the baby in the car? Or smoking around the baby? What they're hiding is this: They hold the baby at night while they sleep together in the bed. Here in the U.

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More moms are choosing to share a bed with their infants. Sincethe practice in the U.

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But the practice goes against medical advice in the U. The American Academy of Pediatrics is opposed to bed-sharing: It "should be avoided at all times" with a "[full-]term normal-weight infant younger than 4 months," the AAP writes in its recommendations for pediatricians.

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The organization says the practice puts babies at risk for sleep-related deaths, including sudden infant death syndrome, accidental suffocation and accidental strangulation. About 3, babies die each year in the U. But a close look at these studies — and an independent analysis from statisticians — reveals a different picture.

And some researchers say it might be time for the U. SIDS risk is calculated for a 2-month-old, female baby of European ancestry. The low-risk baby is of average birth weight and has a year-old mother who does not smoke or drink. The high-risk baby is of low birth weight and has parents who smoke and a year-old mother who has more than two alcoholic drinks regularly.

There is no question that many moms have an instinct to sleep with their babies. And many babies have strong opinions about wanting to sleep with their moms.

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Demanding to be held is a newborn's forte. There is good reason for this mutual pull toward each other, says James McKenna, an anthropologist at Notre Dame who has been studying infant sleep for 40 years.

What they need the most is their mother's and father's bodies," McKenna says. This is what their survival depends on. What's more, the practice of bed-sharing is as old as our species itself.

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Homo sapien moms and their newborns have been sleeping together for more thanyears, says anthropologist Mel Konner at Emory University. Modern hunter-gatherer cultures The two dudes rolled over onto the floor our best insight into the behaviors of our early ancestors, and bed-sharing is universal across these groups, he says.

The practice continues to be widespread around the world. Bed-sharing is a tradition in at least 40 percent of all documented cultures, Konner says, citing evidence from Yale University's Human Relations Area Files.

Some cultures even think it's cruel to separate a mom and baby at night. In one study, Mayan moms in Guatemala responded with shock — and pity — when they heard that some American babies sleep away from their mom. Balinese babies are generally held almost every moment — day and night, anthropologists have noted.

And in Japan, the most common sleeping arrangement is referred to as kawa no ji or the character for river: The shorter line represents the child, sleeping between the mother and father, represented by the longer lines. Western culture, on the other hand, has a long history of separating moms and babies at night. Wealthy Roman families had rocking cradles and bassinets by the bed, historians have noted.

By the 10th century, the Catholic Church began "banning" infants from the parental bed to prevent poor women from intentionally suffocating an infant whom they didn't have resources to care for. Back in the early s, Notre Dame's McKenna decided to do what seemed almost impossible: Figure out just what happens at night when a mom sleeps with a baby.

McKenna and his colleagues transformed his laboratory into an apartment, recruited dozens of moms and babies, and analyzed their bodies while they slept.

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What McKenna found was remarkable. When the mom is breastfeeding, she essentially creates a little shell around the baby. Inside this shell, the baby hears the mom's heartbeat and, in turn, changes her own heart rate. The baby also hears the mom's breathing, which has a rhythm similar to the sounds the baby heard in the womb. It's no wonder nearly every culture uses a swooshing sound to soothe a crying baby.

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The baby also feels the mom's warm breath, which creates little clouds of carbon dioxide around the baby's face. That may sound scary, but the gas stimulates the baby's breathing, according to McKenna. It pokes the baby and says, "Hey, take a deep breath.

And then there is the baby's and mom's movement. McKenna found that throughout the night, breastfed babies in the study don't move all over the bed, willy-nilly.

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Instead newborns stay laser-focused on one location: Even babies in cribs, when they're placed close to their moms, have a similar attraction to their mother: They turn their faces to their mom for the majority of the night.

This tells him, McKenna says, that "babies have evolved to experience this closeness, night after night after night. Babies may have evolved to sleep with their moms on the ground — or on a thin mat — but they did not evolve to thrive in a modern bed, with a 6-inch pad on top of a mattress and giant goose-down pillows.

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In the early s, several studies found that bed-sharing substantially raised a baby's risk of SIDS. Bypediatricians started giving parents a strong, universal message about bed-sharing: For starters, some health agencies took the message to an extreme, Blair says.

In Milwaukeeparents saw an ad in which the mom is portrayed as a meat cleaver.

In another ad there, the headboard of the parental bed is portrayed as a tombstone and etched onto it are the words: And it's not really the evidence. The early studies came with a major caveat, Blair says. They lumped together all types of bed-sharing, including when babies were put The two dudes rolled over onto the floor very dangerous circumstances, such as sleeping next to a parent who was drinking, doing drugs or smoking.

The studies also included babies who slept with a parent on a sofa, not a bed. In these cases, the evidence is strong and clear. Parents who drink or do The two dudes rolled over onto the floor shouldn't be sleeping with their babies because they could roll over onto their child.

Babies who are born premature or whose parents smoke shouldn't sleep in the parents' bed because of potential respiratory problems. Suffocation can also happen when babies sleep on sofas because babies can be trapped between a parent and the cushions. In one of these studies, Blair and his colleagues found a baby was 18 times more likely to die of SIDS when sleeping next to a parent who had been drinking.

In another study, they found a similar risk for babies sleeping on sofas. In the absence of these hazards, is there an increased risk in bed-sharing? So far, only two studies have looked at this question. And doctors and families need to be careful with how they interpret these studies, says Robert Platt, a biostatistician at McGill University, who analyzed the studies for the AAP.

In both studies, the number of SIDS cases is small. One study included total SIDS cases and only 24 cases in which that baby had shared the bed in the absence of parental hazards.

In the other studythere were just 12 of these cases out 1, SIDS deaths. In the latter study, some information about the parent's drinking habits was missing and had to be estimated. Nevertheless, the two studies came to similar conclusions. For babies older than 3 months of age, there was no detectable increased risk of SIDS among families that practiced bed-sharing, in the absence of other hazards.

Overall, the two studies suggest bed-sharing — when no other hazards are present — raises the risk of SIDS by about threefold. But to figure out what it means for a particular baby, you have to figure out the baby's overall risk for SIDS. Take for instance, Melissa Nichols' situation.

Her little girl was born healthy; she was full-term and had a normal birth weight. Nichols doesn't smoke or drink. And she doesn't sleep with her daughter on the sofa. According to Mitchell's data, bed-sharing raises her baby's risk of SIDS from about 1 in 46, to 1 in 16, or an increase of.


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