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In 2003, they went to sleep with their 24-day-old daughter between them and awoke to find Janessa Merrill had died. The medical examiner's conclusion: accidental asphyxiation due to co-sleeping.

Three years later: Different child, same nightmare. Their 3 1/2-month-old son, Kayson, went to sleep on his back in his parents' bed and was found dead the next morning. His cause of death was undetermined.

But arguing the couple knew the dangers of co-sleeping - his mother was warned against it by a pediatrician the day before Kayson died, according to court documents - Salt Lake County prosecutors charged them with child-abuse homicide. Last week a judge ruled the case will go to trial.

Prosecutors and health officials say the case should serve as a reminder to parents to put their kids to bed in a crib, in part because studies have found connections between bedsharing and SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome.

But advocates and adherents of co-sleeping say parents should be taught how to do it safely. They say it promotes bonding and can save lives.

"If you do it safely, the risks are so low. The fear is really taken out of it," said Melissa Knighton, a Salt Lake City mother who sleeps with her 19-month-old daughter, Abigail, and uses a crib to store toys. "By just saying, 'The child died of co-sleeping,' that doesn't tell us anything at all. There's dangerous ways to crib sleep, too."

The case against co-sleeping. The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges bedsharing facilitates breast-feeding and bonding. But citing studies that show co-sleeping can be hazardous in certain situations - contributing to SIDS or accidental suffocation - it advises parents to instead place a crib or bassinet in their bedroom.

According to the Utah Department of Health, 33 of 100 infant sleep deaths from 2003 to 2005 occurred during co-sleeping with parents or siblings. The causes of most of the deaths were undetermined.

"We discourage parents from sleeping with their babies because of the association of co-sleeping and infant death," said Nan Streeter, director of the state's Maternal and Child Health Bureau. She suggests parents buy bed extensions that allow their children to sleep near them but not on the same surface.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller - who said she nursed her children and occasionally fell asleep, only to startle awake - said her office is not out to prosecute co-sleeping parents when deaths occur.

"It's not a circumstance that whenever this happens, charges are going to be filed," she said. "This particular case had aggravating factors. . . . There had been a prior child that had died under the same circumstances."

The couple were reportedly heavy sleepers, and advocates advise against co-sleeping in such cases.

Defense attorneys, who couldn't be reached Friday, have argued the couple didn't cause the deaths and that Kayson could have died from chronic meningitis.

"This is the only case I'm aware of where a parent has been charged for having slept with a baby," Stephen Howard, representing Echo Nielsen, said in July.

Jeff Schmidt, a Sandy pediatrician and president of the Utah chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, advises families there can be risks with bedsharing, and he touts the benefits for parents and babies of sleeping alone.

But, "We don't say, 'You're an awful parent,' or 'I'll turn you in because you co-sleep,' " he said.

Defense of the family bed. The research on bedsharing and infant death is mixed. A 2005 study of SIDS deaths in Scotland found the largest risk occurred when parents slept with infants on a couch and when the baby was less than 11 weeks old. Other studies have found a higher risk of SIDS with infants of low birth weights, among mothers who smoked, among parents have consumed alcohol or are overtired.

Supporters of co-sleeping often cite James McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame. He says a blanket admonishment is simplistic and confuses "normal, healthy human behavior" with pathology.

He points to studies that show cultures with the highest rates of co-sleeping have some of the lowest SIDS rates. One of his studies suggested bedsharing could prevent SIDS because mothers are hyper-vigilant and keep their babies on their backs, a position proven to reduce the risk of sleep death.

The "scientifically inaccurate and misleading statement 'never sleep with your baby' needs to be rescinded," he wrote in a 2005 journal article.

When it's done safely, parents who co-sleep point to benefits like ease of breast-feeding and the connection they gain with their children, especially if they work outside the home. Some estimates say up to three quarters of breast-feeding moms sleep with their children at some point.

"That touch time means so much when they're away for eight or 10 hours during the day," said Barbara Nicholson, founder of the Georgia-based Attachment Parenting International.

Christy Porucznik, a Salt Lake City mom who has shared a bed with her daughter, Zoey, since the 20-month-old was born, said the prosecution won't change her habit. She takes precautions, using a guardrail and sleeping on a firm mattress.

"Although people act like this is some weird thing, it's actually really common," she said. "It's good for people to talk about what is a more risky situation so they can plan to not have that happen to them."

Safe to share a bed?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against bedsharing, urging parents to have babies sleep in their parents' room in a crib or bassinet.

Some experts say it can be done safely. Here are guidelines from askdrsears.com:

* Prevent a baby from rolling out of bed with a guardrail.

* Place the baby next to mother, instead of between parents, and use a large bed, queen- or king-sized.

* Place a baby to sleep on his back and don't overbundle.

Don't co-sleep if:

* You have been drinking, using drugs, are on sedatives or are sleep-deprived.

* You are a smoker.

* You are obese.

* You sleep on a sofa, couch or water bed.

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