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Instead, he shares the same bed as his mother because she believes it makes it easier to breastfeed.

"I don't have to get out of bed during the night, and he doesn't cry during the night because all he has to do is fuss a little bit and I'm right there able to feed him," said Felker, 41. "He doesn't have to wait for me to come across the house."

Felker is a member of La Leche League International, a support organization for breastfeeding. Many of its members believe that having their babies sleep in the same bed as they do not only makes it easier for them to nurse but strengthens the bond between them.

But Delaware's Child Death, Near Death and Stillbirth Commission, which was established to review every child's death in this state, says it's a habit that can kill.

It has reviewed deaths in which parents have unknowingly suffocated their babies by rolling on top of them. Babies also have suffocated from the soft bedding and pillows of a parent's bed and by getting trapped between the headboard and mattress.

Co-sleeping was at least a contributing factor in 14 of 18 deaths reviewed by the commission during fiscal 2010.

The deaths - which occurred over three years - propelled the commission this year to push for criminal penalties against some mothers whose babies die as a result of sleeping in the same bed as a parent.

"This is the most significant public health issue affecting our commission," said Anne Pedrick, its executive director. "I know sometimes we hear of a pushback against this, but we're not anti-breastfeeding - we're anti-suffocation of children."

She considers all of those deaths preventable.

But co-sleeping can be done safely if the mother is breastfeeding, said James McKenna, an outspoken advocate of co-sleeping and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

From his research, McKenna, also a professor of anthropology, said co-sleeping allows the baby to more strongly sense the mother's heat, sound, smell and touch and it makes the baby a lighter sleeper, reducing its risk of sleep apnea.

But the practice should be practiced only if mothers are willing to breastfeed, McKenna said.

"A safe sleep environment begins with the presence of a breastfeeding mother," he said.

The vast majority of co-sleeping deaths occur in babies not being breastfed, McKenna said. And breastfeeding lags among black mothers, according to the most recent National Immunization survey published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This issue has become a political issue instead of a scientific issue," he said. "The deaths are occurring overwhelmingly among poor blacks, and it's a tricky situation because officials don't want to appear to say that white babies can sleep with their mothers and black babies shouldn't."

He added that the commission's recommendation to prosecute parents in fatal cases is "a complete abomination ... like banning the birth process itself."

The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes co-sleeping of any sort while the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine has concluded there's not enough evidence to recommend against it. Both organizations agree that research has not proven that breastfeeding reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

"I'm a big-time believer in breastfeeding, but if you're going to breastfeed in bed, you could get drowsy and you could fall asleep on the baby," said Dr. Kate Cronan, a pediatric emergency room doctor at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.

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