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Percentage of babies sharing bed with adult rises, studies say by Rob Stein, Washington Post

The number of parents who sleep with their babies is increasing significantly in the United States though the practice remains highly controversial, with proponents arguing it helps mothers breast-fed and bond with their children while opponents warn that it increases the risk of suffocating infants.

The percentage of babies sleeping with either a parent or another caregiver rose steadily from 5.5 percent in 1993 to 12.8 percent in 2000, according to the first attempt to get national statistics on the trend. In a nationally representative telephone survey of 8,453 caregivers, at least half said their babies had spent some of the night sleeping on an adult bed in the previous two weeks. The survey was conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

The practice is common among younger and poorer women, those living in the South, blacks and Asian-Americans, according to the National Infant Sleep Position Survey, which was released yesterday.

A second study found that about half of babies in the District of Columbia were put in to bed with a parent of another adult. For that study, conducted 1995 to 1996, researchers interviewed 369 mothers when their infants were 3 to 7 months old and again when their were 7 to 12 months old. Eighty-two percent of the women surveyed were black. Both studies were published in this month's issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

While neither study examined why women elect to sleep with their babies, "the practice is clearly strongly influenced by culture" and the custom of taking a child into the bed is typically passed down through generations, said Marian Willinger, who led the national study. "Certainly breast-feeding promotes bed sharing and breast-feeding has been increasing."

The practice is promoted by advocates of more "natural" childrearing and by some researchers who argue it helps babies become happier and more secure.

James McKenna, director of the Mother Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, said his studies have shown that the bodies of women and their babies are more in sync when the sleep together, which helps both sleep better.

"Babies are designed to feel the presence of their parents," He said. It's only a very recent and very strange cultural innovation that babies would be sleeping apart from their mothers. It's very much a departure from the normal human pattern."

Opponents, however, warn that putting babies to sleep with an adult is a major risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome, in which a seemingly healthy baby dies suddenly without apparent explanation.