I am going to write about some really sad things today. But, these things are important. So, please hang in there with me.
No one likes to talk about or think about infant death - especially new parents. I certainly didn't choose infant injury prevention as a career because I love talking about babies dying. I chose it because I could make a real difference in the lives of parents and their children. I chose it because I still cry every time I learn of a lost child. And I try to be a voice for those children who did not survive. They deserve that honor.
So, let's dive in.
What is SIDS?
If you are a parent, you most certainly have heard the term SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. What is it?
The official definition of SIDS is "the sudden death of an infant less than 1 year of age that cannot be explained after a thorough investigation is conducted, including a complete autopsy, examination of the death scene, and a review of the clinical history". That's quite a mouthful.
The short version: SIDS is an infant death that is truly unexplainable. Another public health expert once explained to a group of doctors that SIDS is like a big black box- we can't see into it and we don't know what is in there. Through research and investigation we slowly shrink the box as we find explanations for deaths that would have previously been called SIDS.
When an infant dies, a multi-disciplinary team conducts a thorough investigation. We do a lot of tests to look at any undiagnosed health issues the baby may have had. We examine the baby's home and sleep environment for risk factors - like crib bumpers or loose blankets. We conduct a thorough review and come together to make a decision on cause of death. If we can't find any explanation then that death may be diagnosed as SIDS.
What isn't SIDS?
Now that we know what SIDS is- an unexplained death- we can talk about what SIDS isn't.
- SIDS isn't suffocation.
- SIDS is not caused by vaccines.
- SIDS is not contagious.
- SIDS is not the result of neglect or child abuse.
- SIDS is not caused by cribs (even though it was called 'Crib Death' for many years).
- SIDS is not caused by vomiting or choking.
- SIDS is not completely preventable, but there are ways to reduce the risk.
While we still don't know how to completely eliminate the risk of SIDS, we do know that there are steps parents can take to lower their baby's risk. Helpfully, these steps also help prevent another leading cause of infant death: suffocation.
What lowers baby's risk of SIDS?
Let's start with the basics - these are the most important steps you can take. The ABC's of Safe Sleep are:
- baby Alone
- on their Back (reduces SIDS risk by 50%!)
- in a safe Crib
Seems pretty straightforward, right? But, we did some focus group testing to find out why parents were not practicing the ABC's of safe sleep consistently. Not surprisingly, the top reasons are fatigue and convenience. Tired parents are more likely to do whatever helps baby sleep, even if it's a little riskier. Pack-n-plays and cribs are great but hard to move around. Parents told us they were more likely to choose unsafe sleep spaces like car seats, bouncy seats, and couches because they were more accessible and convenient than a crib or pack-n-play. It can be helpful to choose a secondary, portable sleep space to encourage safe sleep habits for every sleep time.
In addition to the ABCs, these steps also help prevent SIDS and suffocation:
- Do not smoke around baby or allow anyone to smoke near baby: Babies of smokers are 4 times as likely to die of SIDS.
- Do not overheat baby- dress baby the same as you with one extra layer for warmth if needed. Babies who are too warm may sleep too deeply and not wake up if they are having trouble breathing,
- Place baby to sleep only on a firm surface. No waterbeds, pillows or other fluffy things. Babies have suffocated on blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, and bumper pads.
- Breastfeed: Do the best you can to breastfeed. Even if it's only for a little while. Babies who are breastfed are at lower risk of death.
- Share your room with baby- place a bassinet (or Smitten!) right by your bed.
But, what about bed-sharing?
"If room-sharing is good, what about bed-sharing?" you might ask. Most parents love snuggling with their tiny baby. It feels sooooo good! Sadly, sleep-time snuggling isn't risk-free. Unfortunately, bed-sharing carries a risk of death that is higher than if baby sleeps in their own sleep space. But, it's a choice. Parents have to do what they feel is right for their families.
If you do choose to bed-share, it can help to know some of the things that make bed-sharing dangerous so you can avoid them.
Bed-sharing is riskiest when baby:
- Is younger than 3 months old
- Lives with someone who smokes
- Shares a bed with someone who is very tired
- Shares a bed with someone who is using medications or substances, such as alcohol or illicit drugs
- Shares a bed with someone who is not a parent, including other children
- Shares a bed with more than one other person
- Sleeps on a waterbed, older mattress, sofa, couch, or armchair
- Sleeps on a bed with soft bedding, including pillows, heavy blankets, quilts, and comforters
By avoiding these situations, it's possible to reduce the risk of SIDS and suffocation while bed-sharing. 'Choose' is the key word when it comes to parenting style - bed-sharing including. Unplanned bed-sharing usually includes several of the risks factors named above. Planned bed-sharing is much safer for baby.
As parents, we have so many hard decisions to make. We feel constant guilt. There are some things you can never protect your child from, and that really stinks. But there are other ways you CAN protect your child, and I know we would all leap over mountains to do it.
You are doing a great job.
Pip & Grow co-founder, Amber, is an infant safety expert and mom to three spectacular boys. She believes the medical community can do better at helping parents find easy ways to keep their kids safe. She's blogging about how to protect our little loves without losing our minds.