It doesn’t seem to be a simple issue of geography: when someone living in the West has imported their cultural practices from elsewhere, they bring the lower SIDS risk with them too. Families of Pakistani origin living in the UK, for example, have a lower SIDS risk than white British families – despite mothers commonly sharing a bed with their baby.
“It’s the cultural practices that are associated with the lower SIDS,” says Helen Ball, a professor of anthropology at the University of Durham and director of the university’s Parent-Infant Sleep Lab. Mothers of Pakistani-origin in Bradford have higher rates of breastfeeding and are less likely to smoke, drink, and put their baby to sleep in a separate room – all factors that are known to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Das says he’d like to see bedsharing encouraged but “with a caution note that those persons who are bedsharing should not smoke, should not take alcohol, should not be very obese”. UK SIDS-prevention charity The Lullaby Trust has advice for parents who want to make their bed a safe sleep surface for their baby.
Just as bedsharing keeps babies close during the night, babywearing provides a way to keep them close in the day while parents run errands or work around the house. Rather than a new trend, carrying children in a sling is something humans have done for as long as we’ve been around. It was only when prams became popular during the Victorian era that traditional baby carriers became less common among some sections of Western society. In the rest of the world, there are seemingly almost as many different ways to carry a baby as there are cultures in which babies are carried.
Even parents who don’t use a sling will probably have noticed the instant calming effect of picking up their baby and moving with them. “They intuitively know that this kind of rhythmic motion, between 1-2 hertz, has some power to calm down a baby,” says Kumi Kuroda at the Riken Centre for Brain Science in Japan.
Kuroda began looking into the physiological effects of carrying infants when she saw that previous research, which used parental diaries rather than real-time physiological measurements, didn’t find any correlation between the amount of time babies were carried and the amount they cried. “I couldn’t agree with that,” she says.
Her research found that carrying a baby reduced their heart rate and movement as well as how much they cried. She says subsequent research found that movement without holding, such as transporting a baby in a pram or car seat, as well as holding without moving, also calms a baby over time, but that they work faster in combination.
Close contact, day and night, is what babies expect, biologically-speaking. In their first months they need to be fed frequently around the clock. Even when a baby’s circadian rhythm develops and their sleep begins to consolidate during nighttime hours, waking during the night for at least their first year is normal.