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  • What’s Best for Baby? Co-Sleeping and the Politics of Inequality
  • Laura Harrison (bio)

“The average adult weighs roughly twenty times as much as a newborn baby. That’s about the difference between your weight and the weight of an SUV.” So intones a deep male voice in a radio spot titled “Rollover,” first aired in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in June 2010. The ad continues in a direct address to parents, advising them to engage in a brief experiment: those who believe that it is safe to sleep in a bed with their baby should first ask friends to roll an SUV (an “immovable object”) on top of them. Parents who would choose not try this, the ad continues, are perhaps also smart enough to imagine how a baby feels when being suffocated to death by a sleeping adult. If you love your baby, the announcer concludes, you should know that there is no safer place than in a crib: “It’s the best place to prevent a rollover accident—not to mention, a funeral.”1 This chilling advertisement was one piece of a multi-sited public health initiative called the Safe Sleep Campaign, launched by the City of Milwaukee Health Department in 2009.2

I will return to this particular promotion shortly, but as this brief introduction suggests, the goal of the Safe Sleep Campaign is to eliminate a practice known as bed-sharing, or co-sleeping. Bed-sharing usually refers to a parent sleeping in the same bed with an infant. More broadly, bed-sharing can refer to sharing any sleep surface with a newborn, such as a couch or an armchair, or sleep surfaces shared between infants and siblings or other caretakers.3 Milwaukee’s campaign aims at eliminating bed-sharing because of associations between this practice and infant death due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or accidental suffocation, as mentioned in the Rollover radio piece.4 A death is attributed to SIDS if it occurs in an infant under the age of one and is unexpected or unexplained, even after a thorough investigation, a complete autopsy, and a review of the clinical history.5 [End Page 63]

When it comes to the topic of bed-sharing or co-sleeping, most people would agree that the goal of lowering infant mortality rates is a worthy one, particularly when the aim is to reduce the kind of drastic racial disparities in health that exist in Milwaukee. Infant mortality rates for African American babies in Milwaukee are 2.5 times higher than for white babies, and disparities also exist for Hispanic and other racial and ethnic minorities. Bed-sharing within communities of color is cast as a social problem, and Milwaukee’s campaign vilifies this practice and those who engage in it, particularly targeting communities of color. Building on the work of anthropologist Shellee Colen,6 feminist theorists Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp discuss “stratified reproduction,” or a system in which certain groups of people are empowered to reproduce and to parent, while others are disempowered and constrained along lines of race, class, nationality, and sexuality.7 Public policy, cultural ideologies, and political representations are all components of stratified reproduction, including racialized images of motherhood that pathologize parents of color as bad choice makers.8

As Barbara Gurr explains in her analysis of reproductive justice within Native American communities, all women experience institutionalized oppression, but particular groups of women (women of color, poor women) bear the burden in specific ways. These experiences do not stem solely from individual choices, as the anti-bed-sharing paradigm would suggest, but rather “they are structurally produced, and they are produced along different axes of identity and social location.”9 Likewise, feminist theorist Laury Oaks follows criminal justice scholars in arguing that certain public policies serve as “crime control theater” (including Safe Haven Laws and Amber Alerts), in which an infrequent but thorny social problem results in a reactionary public response that gives the appearance of crime control, if not the effect.10 The response to SIDS deaths in Milwaukee is strikingly similar in that anti-co-sleeping campaigns take aim at an implicitly racialized and class-based stereotype of “bad parents...


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pp. 63-95
Launched on MUSE
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