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Nighttime Parenting in New Zealand

Anne Heritage
Auckland, New Zealand
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 28 No. 5, September-October 1993, p. 79

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time

Of the many pressures the mothers in Western Society experience, the issue of whether or not to attend to a baby's needs at night must surely be near the top of the list of awkward topics that can crop up at Series Meetings. In New Zealand, La Leche League Leaders have the dual problem of mothers being exposed to a sleep training programme so well publicized that here in Auckland it is almost a household name, and the New Zealand Cot Death Study that rated co-sleeping as the fourth major risk factor in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

It seems very easy for mothers attending Series Meetings to pick up the message that the family bed is the only way to deal with wakeful babies at night. In my Group we have had the experience of mothers receiving this message at a time when only one of four Leaders was sleeping with her baby (and she tended to be reticent on the subject). We came to the conclusion that the idea of bed-sharing is so unusual that even one reference to it at an LLL meeting is startling enough to link it forever with La Leche League in some mothers' minds. These days, whenever the joys of the family bed are extolled at meetings, we make sure that an "old hand" is primed to mention an alternative way of attending to her baby's nighttime needs.

As many Leaders have found, it is just as likely that the benefits of a sleep training programme will be brought up by a mother at a Series Meeting as the benefits of the family bed. The sleep programme in Auckland comes complete with parental training, a book, and a supportive counselor, and in our LLL Group we have had occasions when a mother is adamant that this "method" is exactly what more parents should know about.

In our minds we may disagree with the mother who has decided to include a full night's sleep as part of her parenting, but we cannot know the exact circumstances leading to her making that decision. A stressed mother, deprived of rest and under pressure from her partner to "return to normal," may well view eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night as critical to her own well-being and that of her marriage. In all probability, until attending an LLL meeting, she was unaware that any alternatives to a sleep programme exist. However, a friendly welcome, hearing references from other mothers to their nighttime practices, and browsing through the Group Library to see books such as William Sears' NIGHTTIME PARENTING and [i]Caring for Babies at Night [/i](by New Zealand author Jane Elizabeth) may well provide food for thought for that mother with a future baby. The standard LLL approach - of making every mother who comes to us feel special and that her concerns about breastfeeding her baby have been listened to - is, in my experience, more likely than anything else to open her mind to new ideas.

From October 1991 onwards, New Zealand Leaders have had a real problem when presented with mothers' concerns about the announcement from the Cot Death Study that bedsharing increases the risk of a baby dying of SIDS. The data from the study "proved" the risk, and publicity about this fourth factor was nationwide. (The first three risk factors to be identified, incidentally, were putting a baby to sleep in the prone position, parental smoking, and artificial feeding.) Mothers who were interested in the philosophical or practical aspects of the family bed became too fearful of their babies' safety to try it. Yet not one member of the LLL New Zealand Board believed that co-sleeping - in itself - was a dangerous practice for babies. Our Leaders were already aware that when the topic arose at meetings, it should be stressed that certain measures were outlined in the study as contributing factors. To avoid these the family should sleep on a firm mattress, neither parent should be affected by drugs or alcohol, and the baby should be lightly dressed to avoid overheating.

Our faith in our own experience and that of La Leche League was supported late last year when further analysis of data from the Cot Death Study established that the link between SIDS and bed-sharing was, in fact, largely attributable to parental smoking. No fanfare of publicity heralded this discovery. It seems to me that the "bed-sharing is risky" message ties in too well with Western society's standard belief about where babies belong at night - despite the fact that co-sleeping is a traditional practice in some cultures. One journalist writing about SIDS research in the [i]New Zealand Listener[/i] commented that: "Part of the confusion surrounding the four cot death prevention messages arises from some campaigners qualifying those messages according to their own personal prejudices/influences." (She was referring to the fact that the preventive effect of breastfeeding against SIDS was not being well publicized.) While I was pleased that a journalist could see this problem, as a Leader I am still faced at meetings with mothers who heard only the first message about bed-sharing and have heard nothing about the significant link of smoking. LLL New Zealand's statement about the safety measures required for co-sleeping now include the avoidance of smoking as well as of drugs and alcohol.

When the data from the New Zealand Cot Death Study was first published and included breastfeeding as a preventive factor, La Leche League was, of course, pleased. As time went by, however, it became obvious that the same emphasis was not going to be given to artificial feeding as was being given to the first two risks, not putting your baby to sleep on his/her stomach and not smoking. Then when the fourth risk factor was announced, that of co-sleeping, we were faced with an added complication which we didn't need. However, just as time and science proved that LLL's Founders were right to insist that breastfeeding was best for babies, so too we need to have faith that one day Western society will recognise that the basic mammalian practice of mothers sleeping with their young is not only practical but safe and beneficial for both (or all three, or four, or five . . .) parties concerned.


Dwyer, T et al. Sudden infant death syndrome - insights from epidemiological research. J Epid Commun Hlth 1992; 46:98-102.

Mitchell, E.A. et al. Results from the first year of the New Zealand Cot death study. NZ Med J 1991; 104:71-76.

Mitchell, E.A. at al. Four modifiable and other major risk factors for cot death: The New Zealand Study. J Paediatr Child Health 1992; 28 Suppi 1:53-58.

Scragg, L.K. et al. Evaluation of the cot death prevention programme in South Auckland. NZ Med J 1993; 106:8-10.

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