Last week, Fisher-Price announced a massive recall of all of its Rock ’n Play sleepers, saying that more than 30 babies have died in them. Until pretty recently, my husband and I owned – and loved – one of those 4.7 million sleepers.
I’ve been sent here from the past – about nine months back, to be exact – to speak for the parents of newborns. I’m no longer a resident of Newborn Town, but I lived there recently enough that I can still remember taking an infant home from the hospital.
I remember sitting awake at a time of night I had last seen, many years earlier, coming home from parties or bars. But this time, I sat in the eerie quiet holding my son – a creature who seemed impossibly small and weak. I remember feeling that his grasp on life was so tenuous it might be snatched away at any time, even during the most routine of activities – a bath, a feeding, a nap.
There are many things to fear when you’re the parent of a newborn, but chief among them is sleep.
When you’re released from the hospital, you’re given reams of pamphlets and flyers and among them is almost certain to be one about what’s recently been termed “safe sleep.”
You’re told about newborn arousal instincts and how babies that young can’t be relied upon to turn their heads or cry when their breathing is obstructed. You’re also told about the mystical confluence of circumstances – developmental stage, genetic predisposition and environmental factors – that scientists now believe may cause SIDS. Those environmental factors, often, are related to sleep.
In safe sleep, babies should be alone, with no parents or blankets or toys nearby.
Babies should be on their backs, never on their stomachs or sides.
And babies should be in a crib, not on a sofa or chair or adult bed.
Fail to follow these rules and you’re risking your child’s life. Can the stakes be any higher?
Some parents win the cosmic lottery and have newborns who sleep soundly and without drama in such circumstances – alone, cold (the room isn’t supposed to be too hot, either, and a baby isn’t to be dressed too warmly), in an empty expanse of crib.
Many, though, do not.
My sons were both of the no-sleep variety. The oldest would snuggle in comfortably whenever he was being held, dozing peacefully for hours at a time in someone’s arms, but would arch his back and wail the second he touched the crib.
“It’s like it’s electrified,” I’d marvel to my husband, demonstrating how I could stop and start the cries instantly just by removing the baby from or touching him to the crib.
We tried everything – wedges, tight swaddles, noise machines, pacifiers, heating pads on the mattress, feeding to sleep, not feeding to sleep, singing (us), soothing baths (him), begging (us), crying (both). Nothing worked in those early days. If we’d been inclined to let him cry it out, even the harshest sleep training methods don’t recommend trying it in the first few months.
So we held him for as long as we could, my husband and I taking turns at the helm so the other could have a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep, my mother-in-law stopping by during the day for us to nap or grab some food.
Then we noticed something.
He would often snooze happily in a Rock ’n Play someone had bought us, but we’d been warned by the NICU where he spent the first three weeks of his life that we could not leave him in anything like that for more than 15 minutes at a time. It also had been drummed into us that something like a Rock ’n Play was particularly dangerous for preemies, who suffer SIDS at higher rates, and during nighttime sleep when he wasn’t being observed.
I wanted to buy a monitor that checks the baby’s heart rate and breathing in the hopes that we might be able leave him in the Rock ’n Play for a few extra minutes of sleep. But the doctors said those monitors were unreliable and also warned against them.
So we kept holding him.
To tell you we were tired is like saying that iPhones are sorta popular. We were hollow, bleary-eyed and weak from lack of sleep, snappish with each other and everyone else, borderline insane. And yet still we held him while he slept – because he literally would not sleep anywhere else.
After a month or two of shuffling through life as if we were in the midst of what Dick Cheney would call an “enhanced interrogation technique,” we stumbled into a pediatrician’s appointment with the baby. She must have seen the look in our eyes, how we were on the verge of collapse, and taken pity.
“You’re intelligent people,” she said kindly. “If you feel he’s safe, and you’re making reasonable choices, let him sleep.”
It was a moment of grace. She granted us a bit of sanity. And we felt OK with leaving our son in the Rock ’n Play at night, where he would sleep heavily and with a seeming air of relief, for four or five hours. It felt like eternity.
So when I read about the infants who died in the Rock ’n Play, it hit me in a special way. I can imagine, if not fully know, the guilt those babies’ parents must feel.
The issue is that for the vast majority of parents, in the realm of newborn sleep, there is no solution, no replacement, no alternative to perfection. If you cannot get a baby to sleep on his back, alone, in a crib, then you have not only failed, but you have no choice but to accept taking a serious risk with the life of your child. There are no recommendations from medical professionals or organizations on how parents can sleep if their babies won’t sleep in the “safe” circumstances.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has no fact sheet called “What To Do If Your Baby Will Not Sleep Safely And You’re Losing Your Mind From Exhaustion.”
There is no pamphlet titled “How To Care For A Cranky Newborn All Day On 20-Minute Sleep Increments Without The Help of A Full-Time Nanny.”
Sometimes you can find scattered recommendations, but those are, hilariously, about how to get the baby to fall sleep, even to the detriment of his or her parents (also known as the “drive around in the car” and “run the hairdryer” tips).
Even the “safe co-sleeping” guidelines from breastfeeding or attachment parenting groups, which knowingly skirt the issue, still make rules about who can and can’t safely co-sleep. Any preemie, any bottle-fed baby, any obese mother is out.
There appears to be some kind of $1,300 crib that promises to safely rock and shush your baby to sleep, but that kind of high-tech apparatus is out of reach of all but the richest parents. I think our Rock ’n Play cost about $40.
The newborn stage is a sprint, but it feels like a marathon when you’re in it. Sometimes, such as when you can’t sleep, it feels like an endless slog through molasses.
If doctors and researchers want to decrease the number of sleep-related infant deaths, they need to spend less time issuing “don’t” lists and more finding other safe methods of putting babies to sleep and keeping them that way for longer stretches of time. Parents wouldn’t use risky devices if they didn’t work and if they weren’t desperate to get some rest.
If I’d known that more than 30 babies had died in the Rock ’n Play or that there was a recall on the sleeper, of course I would have tossed ours, cried and resigned myself to surviving on no sleep. But why should that be the only option?
Virtually all parents want to do the right thing. It’s just that it can seem impossible when you’re dealing with a newborn baby and a set of strictures that feel as if they’re designed to reduce the chances your kid will sleep soundly.
It does no good to issue proclamations that often fall flat in real life and then finger-wag when parents fail to follow rules that only work with two-way participation (that of both parent and baby).
Like most parents, we made it through the newborn stage. We have an entirely new set of worries, and the Rock ’n Play isn’t among them.
But I remember what it was like to feel as if there were no way to both follow the safe sleep rules and get any sleep myself. As a society, we should do more, and better, for those in the midst of dealing with a newborn who won’t sleep. We should show parents how to escape that trap – with both their sanity and their babies’ safety intact.
Georgia Garvey is the editor of the Pioneer Press publications.