Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is a scary thing for parents of babies to think about. The name itself points to the reason it’s so frighting– for some time it’s been a great mystery that no one knew the real answer to. SIDS is the leading cause of death in infants between one month and one year of age. In the United States, around 3,000 babies die from SIDS each year. These infants are generally healthy babies, who showed no signs of suffering, abuse, or illness. They seem to just die “peacefully” in their sleep.
What You Can Do to Prevent SIDS
Despite the widespread believe that SIDS is a baffling and unpredictable tragedy, there are ways you can significantly protect your baby. One thing that has been proven is that babies who sleep on their backs are less likely to die of SIDS than babies who sleep on their stomachs. And so the “Back to Sleep” program was born in 1992, when the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) began warning parents of babies under 1 year old never to let their infants sleep on their stomachs. Since then, the rate of SIDS has dropped by over 50%. In addition to this, Dr. Sears explains that there is a combination of many factors that lead to death: immature development of cardio-respiratory control mechanisms, defective arousability from sleep in response to breathing difficulties, medical conditions that compromise breathing, and unsafe sleeping practices.
The main risk factors for SIDS are:
- Prematurity or low birth-weight
- Smoking or taking illegal drugs during pregnancy
- Smoking around baby after birth
- Putting baby to sleep on their stomach
- Infants who are not breastfeeding
- Having little or no prenatal care
- Unsafe sleeping environment
- Overheating from excessive sleepwear and bedding
- There is no correlation between immunizations and SIDS.
Therefore, parents should follow the AAP recommendations for reducing the risk of SIDS:
- Place your baby on a firm mattress to sleep.
- Do not put your baby to sleep on a pillow, waterbed, sheepskin, couch, chair, or other soft surface.
- To prevent rebreathing (where the baby inhales the same air he just exhaled), do not put blankets, comforters, stuffed toys, or pillows near the baby.
- Make sure your baby does not get too warm while sleeping. A good temperature is one where an adult would be comfortable in a short-sleeve shirt. Do not over-bundle or over-swaddle your baby.
- Do not smoke, drink, or use drugs while pregnant and do not expose your baby to secondhand smoke. Exposure to secondhand smoke doubles a baby’s risk of SIDS, while a mother who smoked during pregnancy triples the risk.
- Receive early and regular prenatal care.
- Make sure your baby has well-baby checkups regularly.
- Breastfeed, if possible. There is some evidence that breastfeeding may help decrease the incidence of SIDS.
- If your baby has GERD (reflux), be sure to follow your doctor’s guidelines on feeding and sleep positions.
- Put your baby to sleep with a pacifier during the first year of life. If your baby rejects the pacifier, don’t force it. Pacifiers have been linked with lower risk of SIDS.
Dr. Sears also advocates a style of caretaking called Attachment Parenting. In addition to many benefits for you and your baby, Attachment Parenting greatly reduces the odds of your baby succumbing to SIDS. For more information, read these worthwhile articles:
- 4 Ways Attachment Parenting can Reduce the Risk of SIDS
- 3 Reasons Babywearing reduces SIDS)
- 8 Reasons Breastfeeding Reduces SIDS
- Co-sleeping SIDS
- Beware of Sleep Trainers
When Stomach Sleeping is OK
Having said all that, for some babies, it is actually recommended that they sleep on their stomachs.
Premature babies or babies with breathing difficulties are put to sleep on their tummies, since the still partially collapsed lungs of some prematures tend to expand better when front-sleeping.
If an infant has gastroesophageal reflux, it is also recommended that he sleep tummy down, at least for two hours after a feeding. Some babies sleeping on their tummies also seemed to settle better and spit- up less after feeding.
Listen to Your Baby: If your baby is just not content to sleep on his back, is it OK to put him to sleep on his stomach? Well, because of the new research it is best to try to get baby accustomed to sleeping on her back or side. Newborn babies tend to get in the habit of sleeping the way they are first put down. Nevertheless, Dr. Sears says that unless advised to the contrary by your doctor, it is best to let your baby sleep in a position she prefers. This means that if your baby doesn’t settle down, or stay asleep on her back or side, front sleeping is fine. Newborn babies DO tend to prefer their tummies. “If a baby repeatedly doesn’t settle in a certain sleeping position, this may be a clue that this position may not be the safest for this individual baby. This is just one example of how babies often try to tell us what is in their best interest. Parents should not be afraid to listen.”
Just be sure to follow all the safety precautions listed above, such as placing baby on a firm mattress, not overheating the room, etc.
Another Possible Cause of SIDS
Sleep position may be important, but there is some evidence that SIDS may be related to the fire retardants in the baby’s mattress. The reason this may be a culprit in SIDS is that an ordinarily harmless fungus (Scopulariopsis brevicaulis) consumes the chemicals used in the plasticized mattress cover. Baby’s drool, vomit, urine, and perspiration, combined with body heat, enable the fungus to grow rapidly. When this occurs, neurotoxic gases are emitted. If baby breathes a significant amount of these odorless gases for a prolonged time, the central nervous system can shut down, causing death.
Using a mattress pad that is NOT made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) would eliminate this tragedy. For more information, read Is sleep position really important in SIDS? Also, read about mattress wrapping, which means wrapping baby’s mattress in a polyethylene cover, to prevent your infant from breathing the gases. You can also look into an organic crib mattress, made from all-natural fibers which have not be treated with flame-retarding chemicals.
Feature image from Delio: Organic Bedding for Baby