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The Co-Sleeping Controversy: How Safe Is It For Your Baby?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Along with a new baby comes a long list of big decisions. Where the newest family member will sleep can be one of the most controversial.

About 15 percent of parents say they share sleep space with their child regularly. More than half have done it at some point. It's been billed as both dangerous and beneficial.

New research on both sides has only fueled the debate. When the Hooper's brought their baby home from the hospital, there was never a question were Tessla would sleep.

"Yeah, she's in the bed right now," her mom, Amanda Hooper said.

It's right where her big sister and brother had been before.

"My husband kind of has his little pillow barrier there so he knows where he can't roll anymore," Amanda said.

Amanda considers herself a light sleeper. She believes sharing her bed is beneficial to nursing and bonding, and she thinks they both get more sleep this way.

If Amanda's extra tired a bassinet is nearby.

"It just works for our family. I wouldn't be doing this if for us it wasn't safe," she said.

But it's a subject Karen Haugen wishes she didn't know so well.

"You just don't think this is going to happen to you. You just don't," Haugen said.

Karen met her second granddaughter at an Eau Claire hospital within 15 minutes of her birth.

"Precious little thing. Precious little thing," Haugen said.

She shared a summer with Esme and her sister until a phone call came early one September morning. The 4-month-old had suffocated on her father's stomach while he sat up on the couch, sleeping.

"It was awful, just awful," Haugen said. "It was like this doesn't happen. These are two educated people going to college."

No alcohol was involved and no medications. No charges were ever filed.

"It was just unbelievable and so preventable, so preventable," she added.

It's been more than three years since Esme died. Her parents divorced shortly after. Despite her grief, Karen considers it her duty to tell her granddaughter's story.

"Please put your babies in their cribs," she said.

Last fall, a study by the Minnesota Department of Health found unsafe sleep environments accounted for nearly all unexpected infant deaths in the state. Of the 56 babies who died, 52 were in what doctors deemed an unsafe sleep environment.

Half were sharing a sleep surface with another person. The other half were in an unsafe sleep position.

Susan Castellano is Maternal and Child Health Director at the Minnesota Department of Health.

"When I hear about co-sleeping causing an infant death I think how tragic because it was so preventable. Here's an infant that had nothing physically wrong with them and is dead because of a risk they faced," Castellano said.

Castellano recommends room sharing as the best option for parents. A long list of child sleeping products makes that easier than ever before. It's why the health department sticks to its message, that there is no such thing as co-sleeping safely.

"It's just not worth the risk," Castellano said.

But, Catherine Mascari, a certified nurse midwife, doesn't think that's the right message to be sending.

"I think in the healthy mother in the healthy term infant I would say no, it's not," Mascari said.

Mascari says science supports the value of sharing a bed with your baby.

"It's love. It's promoting good neurological development, less stress for the baby," she said.

Mascari believes parents need to be better informed on how to make it safe, a firm mattress, away from heavy blankets, pillows, couches and chairs. While she doesn't doubt statistics, she says research shows when a baby dies co-sleeping it's because safety rules weren't followed.

"To put out there in such a declarative manner that you do this, this is going to happen, when the numbers really don't demonstrate that," she said.

Amanda Hooper has heard the tragic stories, but it hasn't changed her mind.  She considers it a decision best left up to parents.

"We do what works for our family and I just hope everyone does what works for their family and that they're safe about what they do," Hooper said.

Experts all agree that whoever cares for your baby needs to know the sleeping arrangements you're comfortable with.  It's important everyone is on the same page.

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