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Share via Email Is it safe? Mothers who do it know it quietens a fretful baby, and allows them to breastfeed without having to stumble out of bed into the shocking chill of the early hours in a half-dazed, sleep-deprived state of resentment.

But we must not do it, say authoritative bodies including the Department of Health and a leading charity. We must go against our instincts because we are risking our baby's lives. Bedsharing is a risk for cot death. The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths FSID and the department say categorically that the safest place for a baby is in a cot in the parents' bedroom.

Babies must sleep alone. Breastfeeding mothers should wake up, get up in the cold grey dawn, pick them up, settle in a comfortable armchair, feed them and then put them back in the cot and hope they won't wail piteously for long.

This message was strongly repeated by the foundation on the publication of a study this week by the British Medical Journal which FSID itself funded. But anyone who read the full paper, by a very experienced and well-respected team from Bristol and Warwick Universities, would be hard pushed to believe it either. But although the risk was strong if they had crashed out on the sofa, it was only significant among those in a bed if the parent had drunk more than two units of alcohol or had been taking drugs.

baby cot bed images Baby cot bed images

This is a serious, heavyweight piece of research by a team with impeccable credentials who have been working in this field for 20 years. They looked at all sudden unexplained infant deaths Sids — often referred to as cot deaths in the south-west of England between the start of and the end of After campaigns in the 90s on the dangers of putting babies to sleep on their fronts, the number of cot deaths has dropped dramatically — by half.

But there were still enough deaths 79 in this study to make their conclusions valid. Peter Fleming, professor of infant health and developmental physiology in Bristol, one of the study authors, was appalled by the misinterpretation, as he sees it, of the paper in the media this week.

We did not find any increased risk from bedsharing. It is a very different message from the one the media picked up. You could also say that half the deaths occurred while babies were alone in their cots, he says, but: The study showed that sleeping with the baby on a sofa really is a risk. Yet seven of the parents whose baby died say they had gone to the sofa to feed, aware that bedsharing is said to be dangerous, and had fallen asleep. Parents of young infants need to feed them during the night, sometimes several times, and if we demonise the parents' bed we may be in danger of the sofa being chosen.

A better approach may be to warn parents of the specific circumstances that put infants at risk.

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From their perspective, the simple direct message — put your baby to sleep in a cot near the bed, not in the bed, is the key. The new study, she says, is just one study although in a Lancet paper the Bristol team also found a link to drink and drugs. George Haycock, professor emeritus of paediatrics at St George's hospital in London, who is FSID's scientific advisor, points to nine previous studies that have looked at co-sleeping and cot death and concluded that sharing a bed is risky.

And he is tacitly critical of the "breastfeeding lobby" for defending bedsharing, when there is no concrete proof that it increases the numbers of women who breastfeed. But Fleming says this study breaks new ground.

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  • Nobody in the past has gathered reliable information about drug-taking. Among black African populations in the United States and Maori and Aboriginal people, where babies commonly sleep with their parents, cot deaths are high, yet in other bedsharing communities, such as Japan, Hong Kong and among the Bangladeshi and other Asian peoples of the UK, deaths are low.

    The difference is in their smoking, drinking and drug habits.

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  • FSID's raison d'etre is to eliminate sudden unexpected infant deaths and that is what they believe their advice on putting babies in cots, on their backs, "feet to foot", on a firm mattress with no pillow, will help do. But other organisations think there may be real benefits to taking your baby into your bed. The National Childbirth Trust NCT , the country's leading parenting organisation and champions of breastfeeding , openly defends bedsharing.

    The NCT's position is a response to the real world of its members. Deborah Jackson, author of Three In A Bed, says she thinks we are, in the UK, "fixated on the bad aspects of sharing a bed with the baby", which is strange because "the history of bedsharing or shared sleeping places with the baby is as old as humanity itself".

    Her research, together with her own experiences of bedsharing with her three children, have persuaded her it is profoundly beneficial for both mother and child. The mother is aware of her baby as she is sleeping and reacts to her. I suddenly sat up in the night and held her over the bed and she was sick," she says.

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  • Somehow she had known the baby was about to be unwell. But there are clear dangers if the mother has been drinking or taking drugs.

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    That's true of everything in parenting," she says. Cot death is devastating and everybody is on the same side — they want to see fewer tragic families who have lost their babies. But there is clearly not one single road that everybody can march down together. In the end, a single prohibitive message for parents may even be counter-productive.

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    This may be one of those cases where the public should be given credit for their intelligence and allowed to make up their minds on the basis of rather fuller information.

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