Probably the most common fear among new parents is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Also known as “crib death,” SIDS strikes about 1 in every 1,400 babies. It’s defined as the sudden death of an infant in the first year of life for which no other explanation can be found. You can reduce the risk of SIDS, however, by creating a safe sleep environment. Here’s how:
Know who’s at the highest risk. Ninety percent of SIDS deaths occur within the first 6 months of life, with the peak age being 2 to 4 months. More boys are afflicted than girls, and African-American and Native American infants have a higher rate of SIDS than Caucasian, Asian, or Hispanic infants. Premature and low birth weight babies, infants born to mothers with no or late prenatal care, or babies who are exposed to tobacco smoke are also at increased risk.
Put your baby “back” to sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be put to sleep on their back, since stomach sleeping greatly increases a baby’s risk for SIDS. The threat of stomach sleeping is largely based on a “rebreathing” theory –that if a baby sleeps on his stomach, he’s more likely to sleep facedown and may inhale the same air that he’s just exhaled and not get enough oxygen. The lack of oxygen should trigger a baby to wake up, but if for some reason it doesn’t, the baby can suffocate. (A doctor may recommend tummy sleeping for a few babies, such as those who have complications of severe gastroesophageal reflux.)
Avoid soft bedding. Use a firm crib mattress and don’t place any blankets, stuffed toys, or pillows near your baby when she sleeps. Soft bedding can dangerously restrict the fresh air that your baby is able to breathe –especially if she rolls onto her tummy or manages to burrow her face in the covers.
Be careful about co-sleeping. A crib is the safest place for your baby to sleep. Adult mattresses don’t have to meet any child-safety standards and a baby’s head might sink into the soft padding. (For this reason, waterbeds are extremely dangerous.) The close quarters also increase the chance that a parent could roll onto the baby; the blankets and pillows are a risk as well.
Don’t overbundle your infant. Allowing infants to get too warm may increase the risk of SIDS since overheating can cause babies to sleep deeply and fail to arouse normally. Keep your child’s room at a temperature that is comfortable for a lightly clothed adult. Even though there isn’t a blanket in the crib, your baby usually only needs one more layer than you do.
Educate your caregiver. Studies have shown that babies who are used to sleeping on their back are at particular risk for SIDS when placed on their stomach for sleep. This may explain why a surprising number of SIDS cases occur in childcare settings. Remind all caregivers (including those at daycare) to put your baby “back” to sleep.
Take care of infant illnesses. A number of SIDS deaths involve infants who had a recent infection. Be sure to keep all of your well-baby visits and stay on schedule for childhood vaccines. Talk to your doctor when your baby is sick, and use a nasal aspirator to help keep her air passages clear when she has a cold.
Babies exposed to tobacco smoke also suffer more illnesses and have a higher risk of SIDS, so don’t ever smoke around your baby (or allow others to do so). Breastfeed if you can, since it can help keep your baby healthy. While the risk of SIDS can’t be eliminated, you can take heart in knowing that there are many ways to keep your baby safe.