When Melissa and Rudy Haberzettl's son Jacob was born in November 2006, he was perfect in every way -- full-term, healthy weight, and a champion eater. Like many new moms, Melissa was determined to follow doctor's orders: She breastfed Jake exclusively, put him to sleep on his back, never exposed him to cigarette smoke, and kept soft toys and bedding out of his crib. And Jake thrived. "He was such a happy baby, always looking around and cooing," remembers the Colorado Springs mom.
Of course Melissa had heard about sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) -- the designation most commonly used when a healthy baby dies in his sleep, suddenly and without any medical explanation -- but she wasn't really worried about it. "When you do everything right, you just don't think it can happen to you," she says.
But when Jake was 3 months old, the unthinkable happened.
Melissa had arranged to return to work two days a week as a physical therapist, and she had chosen an in-home daycare center highly recommended by friends. Though she felt anguished about leaving her baby for the first time, she also felt certain Jake was in good hands, and she resisted the impulse to check in. Rudy, also a physical therapist, didn't. He called the sitter three times, reporting to Melissa each time that the baby was just fine. He planned to pick up Jake at 3:30 p.m. Melissa hadn't heard from Rudy by 4 p.m., so she called his cell. The instant she heard Rudy's voice, she knew something was wrong. "I could tell he'd been crying, and my husband does not cry." When Melissa asked, "Is Jake okay?" Rudy just said, "Stay where you are. I'm coming to get you."
Trying not to panic, Melissa called the sitter, but the person who answered would tell her only that the sitter wasn't available. By the time her husband arrived in a police cruiser a few minutes later, Melissa understood. "Jake's dead," she said as soon as Rudy stepped out of the car. "When he said yes, I just fell apart."
Why isn't SIDS solved?
The death of a healthy baby is always a terrible shock, but it may be even more shocking today. That's partly because SIDS, which is classified as a natural cause of death, is considered so rare. The official rate from the National Centers for Health Statistics (NCHS) is roughly one death for every 2,000 live births -- or .05 percent. The other reason? Many parents believe that the only babies still dying of SIDS are the ones whose caregivers just aren't following the safe-sleep rules. It's hard to blame them, given that the American Academy of Pediatrics's (AAP) Back to Sleep campaign, which launched in 1994, has been credited with cutting the SIDS rate in half.
But as the Haberzettls learned so tragically, SIDS is still very much a threat, despite the accomplishments of Back to Sleep. And research suggests that the real SIDS rate may in fact be significantly higher than the official numbers indicate: Although fewer than 2,500 infant deaths this year will be classified as SIDS, an additional 2,000 seemingly healthy babies under 12 months will also die mysteriously in their sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). SIDS may be a very rare event, but the news is terrifying nonetheless. No parent wants to consider the possibility of losing a child, which is why we've reached out to top experts in the field to learn what they know now -- 14 years into the campaign -- and what more can be done to save babies.