Open any pregnancy or baby book, and you’ll find that list: the baby essentials, the things you absolutely cannot live without. While many accessories are easily recognized as frivolous, certain items are truly indispensable: the basic necessities for life with a baby.
Or are they?
In this weekly series, we’ll be looking at several baby essentials that really aren’t. They may be useful in certain situations, but if money or space is tight, or if you’re just looking to simplify and reduce consumerism and waste, here’s how to get along just fine without these so-called “essentials.“
Let’s start this series off with a bang, and tear down that ubiquitous piece of baby furniture, a nursery just isn’t a nursery without one:
Non-Essential #1: The Crib
Certainly the largest, and often the most expensive piece of “essential” baby equipment, a crib is something many of us do just fine without, thank you very much. While it is still the best option for some, we must not simply take it as a given that it should be the default choice for everybody.
The entire basic idea of an infant sleeping isolated in a crib in their own bedroom is a relatively modern one, and quite limited to western culture. And yet it is so entrenched in our collective consciousness, that it can be very difficult to conceive of doing things any other way.
One Alternative: Co-Sleeping
Co-sleeping is one obvious “natural” alternative. It allows for easier breastfeeding, better sleep for parents and infants, reassurance that your baby is right there for you to watch over and protect, and possibly even decreases the risk of SIDS. It has been practiced the world over for all of human history and continues to be the norm for up to 90% of the world’s population.
If you like the idea of co-sleeping but are hesitant because you’ve heard the negative propaganda against it, consider this: Thousands of babies die each year in cribs (from SIDS or from crib-related accidents), and a few dozen babies die annually while “co-sleeping”. Even when we account for the possibility that babies sleep in cribs more often than in family beds, these numbers are still striking. Despite this, we’re not told to stop using cribs; authorities respond with extensive “crib safety” checklists and assurances that cribs are absolutely the only safe place for babies to sleep. They do not provide us with an equivalent “safe co-sleeping” checklist, however. We are told to stop co-sleeping completely, with sweeping and sensationalistic warnings that co-sleeping is always dangerous and should never, never, ever ever ever be done. Did we mention… ever??
This mentality is actually more dangerous, since a great many parents end up bringing their babies to bed with them, at least occasionally, out of desperation, exhausted. They never planned or wanted to, believing what they had heard about the dangers, and never having learned the safety precautions (one of which is, do not co-sleep when exhausted). Not only do they end up feeling guilty, but they could unintentionally create an unsafe environment. Our modern adult beds and typical sleeping arrangements are, in fact, not designed with infant safety in mind. So it is of vital importance to spread awareness of co-sleeping safety, rather than ignorance and fear.
In May 1999, the Consumer Product Safety Commission [CPSC] released a warning against cosleeping or putting babies to sleep on adult beds that was based on a study of death reports of children under the age of two who had died from 1980 to 1997. Among the 2,178 deaths by unintentional strangulation in the Commission’s study were 180 young children who had died from being overlain on a sofa or bed. In another analysis of CPSC data it was found that of 515 deaths in an adult bed, 121 of these were the result of overlying and 394 children died as a result of entrapment in the structure of the bed (Heinig, 2000). The CPSC statistics resulted in a media frenzy discouraging cosleeping which, instead of educating the public on how to share sleep safely, chose to alarm parents. Neither media announcement mentioned the 2,700 infants that died in the final year of that study of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome [SIDS], formerly called “crib death”; the vast majority of those infants died alone in their cribs (Seabrook, 1999). (2001 Tami E. Breazeal)
Another Alternative: The Floor Bed
Even if co-sleeping isn’t right for you (and it certainly isn’t right for every family), you can still question the need to keep your baby in what is essentially an elevated cage. Babies are just as well off, in fact, on a simple mattress on the floor. The bars which are there for ‘safety’ are only necessary because the baby is so high up. And they’re only that high up in the first place as a convenience to parents, so we don’t have to bend over to put our babies in.
A regular mattress on the floor provides several advantages. You are not limited to standing beside the crib, patting your fussy baby’s back. You can lie down with your baby, whether just staying with them or nursing them to sleep while side-lying, and easily slip away after they’ve drifted off. Or perhaps you would prefer to sit on the mattress to nurse them to sleep, then gently lay them down – this is far easier than having to stand up from your chair, walk over to the crib, and reach baby down to the crib mattress (all without waking him!!) And of course, being on the floor already, there is no danger of injury from either falling off, or entrapment within the bars.
From the floor mattress, baby has better view of her entire room, not just the ceiling and bars, and thus has more visual stimulation. Many believe that babies are actually calmer and less stressed. As baby becomes a toddler, it is greatly to their advantage to have the freedom be able to get in and out of their beds by their own will, rather than experiencing the powerlessness of having to cry and wait for an adult to respond. This promotes independence and self-fulfillment and is notably endorsed by the philosophies of child-rights and development pioneer, Dr. Maria Montessori.
If you do choose a mattress on the floor, the usual safety checklists still apply, of course. No pillows, blankets, toys, etc, that you would not have in a family bed or in a crib, and ensure that entrapment between the mattress and a wall is not a possibility. If you would like something a little nicer than just a mattress, you can build your own, or purchase a ready-made floor bed.
Both co-sleeping and floor beds are solutions that use fewer resources, cost less money, and quite probably result in happier, more secure children (and thus, eventually, adults). So dare to think outside the baby cage box: question the crib!
[This post was written by Heather Dunham]
Photo: Valentina Powers under creative commons.