Most newborn babies thrive and celebrate their first birthdays. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for every 1,000 babies born in the U.S., six will die during their first year. This is known as infant mortality. As summer winds down, September is a perfect time to discuss how to keep your baby safe as we recognize National Infant Mortality Awareness Month.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the sudden, unexplained death of a baby, is the leading cause of death among infants between 1 and 12 months of age, and is most common between the ages of 1 and 4 months. Each year in the United States, approximately 3,500 infants suffer a sudden, unexpected infant death (SUID) and about half of these unexpected deaths are attributed to SIDS. SUIDs can be caused by sleep-related issues linked to the baby’s sleep environment, such as when a baby gets entrapped by objects and suffocates.
The rate of SIDS has decreased by 50 percent over the last two decades following a public health campaign led by the American Academy of Pediatrics encouraging parents to put their babies to sleep on their backs. Side sleeping is not considered a good safe sleep practice because babies can more easily roll from their side to an unaccustomed tummy position. If your baby doesn’t seem to like sleeping on his or her back at first, be patient. By placing your baby on his or her back each time you put them down to sleep, your infant will quickly adapt to this position.
While positioning babies on their backs during sleep remains the single most important thing parents can do to reduce risk, other factors such as bed-sharing and sleeping on adult mattresses are known SUID risks. New babies are safest sleeping in the same room as their parents, but not in their beds. While SIDS rates have decreased over the past 20 years, the percentage of infants who were bed sharing/sleeping on an adult mattress at the time of death nearly doubled. We know that mattresses made for adults, as well as sofas, chairs, pillows and other furniture, increase the risk of SIDS.
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Babies should sleep on a firm mattress covered by a fitted sheet, in a safety-approved bassinet or crib, placed near or next to their parents’ bed. This allows mothers who are breastfeeding to easily reach their babies during the night, while still ensuring the safest possible sleep environment. If you breastfeed your baby in bed or on a sofa or chair at night, make sure to place your baby in the crib or bassinet before you return to sleep.
Your baby’s bed should be free of pillows, blankets, crib bumpers, toys and stuffed animals. Dress your baby in a lightweight sleeper or zippered sleep sack, but avoid using blankets. Be aware of overheating, as it is a risk for SIDS. If you notice your baby is sweating, has red cheeks or damp hair, change your baby into lighter sleep clothes or adjust the room temperature to a cooler setting.
One of the best things a mother can do to promote her infant’s overall health is to breastfeed. Babies who are breastfed have been found to have lower rates of SIDS. They sleep more lightly than formula-fed babies and suffer fewer infections, both of which may play a role in SIDS prevention. The more exclusively you breastfeed and the longer you breastfeed, the stronger the protective effect for your baby’s health.
Exposure to cigarette smoke, either during pregnancy or through second-hand exposure once your baby is born, is the second largest SIDS risk factor. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, research suggests that one-third of SIDS deaths could be prevented if all maternal smoking during pregnancy were eliminated.
Additionally, eliminating tobacco smoke anywhere in your home environment can reduce your baby’s risk for SIDS, as well as many other diseases across his or her lifetime. If someone in your home environment is a smoker, ask that they join your team to protect your baby’s health by smoking outdoors and away from all children.
It is important to educate everyone who cares for your baby, including grandparents, babysitters and child care workers, about safe sleep practices. Approximately 20 percent of SIDS deaths occur while babies are in the care of someone besides their parents, often when an unaware caregiver places a baby on his or her stomach when they normally sleep on their back at home. This is called “unaccustomed tummy sleeping” and has been associated with an 18-fold increase in risk for SIDS.
By following these guidelines to create a safe sleep environment, you can increase your baby’s odds of living a long and happy life. For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org.
Connie Morrow, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and the Associate Director of the Perinatal CARE Program at UHealth – University of Miami Health System, nationally and internationally acclaimed for education, research, patient care and biomedical innovation. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.