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Co-sleeping stigma keeps many moms silent -- even to their doctors

It just happened one night.

Melissa Newton had read baby books and articles, and she had a rocker set up in her bedroom for Ava James, her newborn daughter, when she got home from the hospital.

But after colic took hold and the night feedings stretched to morning, the Woodstock woman gave in and brought her daughter into her bed to sleep.

"I never thought I'd co-sleep, because of some of the negative things I read about it and the horror stories I heard about babies being smothered in their sleep by parents. This kind of thing is enough to scare any first-time parent," said Newton, a contractor for a government health agency who researched how to keep her infant safe while co-sleeping. "I reached a point where I was willing to do almost anything for a few hours of sleep."

Many pediatricians discourage parents from letting their baby sleep in the same bed, but some parents say it's the only way they can get any rest. (PHOTO ILLUSTRATION / FOTOSEARCH)

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She isn't ashamed of her decision to let her baby sleep in her bed for a few hours, usually after an early morning nursing session. She knows she is keeping her daughter safe. But she hasn't mentioned it to her pediatrician.

"With so much out there about (sudden infant death syndrome) and the importance of keeping baby's sleep environment safe, I think many parents are hesitant to say they co-sleep, at the risk of being judged for somehow putting their baby at risk," Newton said. "I think she would probably discourage it. I feel like we've educated ourselves and are doing it safely, so I don't feel it necessary to mention it to our doctor now."

According to a new survey conducted overseas, 46 percent of British women who co-sleep lie about it to their doctor. Physicians should take note of that, said Dr. Hansa Bhargava, a pediatrician at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and medical editor for WebMD.

"I am not surprised, unfortunately, that parents aren't forthcoming," she said. "It does worry me, though. The takeaway is that we should talk about SIDS anyway."

The doctor said she always encourages parents to keep their baby out of their bed, because it has been linked to infant death.

According to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation report on child fatalities, 52 of the 202 infant deaths in the state in 2014 were attributed to sleep-related asphyxia, which means the baby suffocated in its sleep. Ninety-six others were attributed to sudden unexplained infant death with sleep risk factors present, and eight were related to an unsafe sleep environment that likely exacerbated a medical condition. Sixty percent of the sleep-related infant deaths that year occurred in an adult bed.

Bhargava pointed out that SIDS has decreased by 50 percent since 1994, when the National Institutes of Health introduced the Back to Sleep campaign, now known as Safe to Sleep, which encourages parents to place children on their backs and to remove pillows, blankets and crib liners from a baby's bed.

"It makes a lot of sense why a parent would (co-sleep). I can see it as a mom myself," Bhargava said. "But it can be just as comforting to have your baby in your room. I think that room-sharing is probably better than bed-sharing until they are well into their toddler years."

Bhargava said she is grateful that she has never lost a patient, but she has counseled worried parents who thought they may have rolled over onto their baby or that the baby stopped breathing.

"That's really, really scary for a parent. It's like not putting a seat belt on a child. Why even go through that?" she said. "There are other ways to bond with your baby. Protecting their safety is the most important thing you can do for your child."

But Renee Rainey disagrees that co-sleeping is putting her baby at risk. About a week after Emersyn Grace came home from the hospital, she decided to look into bed-sharing. She read a book recommended by her lactation consultant to find out how to keep her baby safe, but she hasn't talked to her pediatrician about it.

"I think I am a little reluctant (to talk to the doctor) about it because it's generally frowned upon, and no one likes getting scolded," said Rainey, an Acworth stay-at-home mom to her 5-month-old. "I think — if done correctly — co-sleeping is fine. We were very cautious and once our daughter was in the bed we became very light sleepers. ... Our daughter sleeps so much better with us versus in the bassinet next to us, and as a new parent that was vital to my sanity."

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