A study released in Pediatrics this month points to new evidence that many parents aren’t following the sleep-safety guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) — especially when it comes to back-sleeping. And that oversight, while seemingly benign, can have real risks.
For context, in 1994 the AAP launched one of the most successful public health campaigns in history called “Back to Sleep”, in which doctors and researchers urged parents to always lay their babies on their backs when putting them to sleep. Although the medical community remained uncertain as to what causes SIDS (and for the most part, still does), the public movement to lay babies on their backs led to a 53 percent drop in SIDS rates nationally.
However, while SIDS has been on the decline in the last two decades, sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) — which includes accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed — has been on the rise. And according to Pediatrics, the drop in SIDS rates has actually been offset by these other sleep-related deaths.
In an interview with CBS News, Dr. Michael Goodstein, a lead author on the study and a neonatologist at York Hospital in Pennsylvania, explained why back-sleeping is still best: “There is no way to tell which infants are vulnerable — so back-sleeping is the safest position for all babies in the first year of life.”
The new study surveyed 3,300 American mothers with children between the ages of 2 and 6 months, which is when SIDS is most likely to occur. Researchers saw that 77 percent of moms indicated that they “usually” lay their babies on their backs, while 49 percent said “always.”
According to Dr. Goodstein, there are plenty of reasons why parents might sometimes lay their babies on their tummies.
“Some worry that their baby will spit up and choke,” Dr. Goodstein told CBS News, but as he explains, “there is no extra hazard from back-sleeping due to the anatomy of the airways.”
That’s pretty eye-opening, I have to say. As a mother to an infant who’s a “happy spitter” (meaning she nurses a lot and also spits up almost constantly), the thought of her choking in her sleep has kept me awake many a night. This fear has even motivated me to let my daughter take her naps while I wear her in a wrap. She sleeps, sitting up, while pressed against my chest with her face uncovered. That way, I can see and feel her while she sleeps.
Considering all the unknowns that still remain with SIDS, it’s no wonder so many parents have certain anxieties about it, just as I do. But here’s what experts do know for sure: According to the Mayo Clinic, there are more than a dozen known risk factors for SIDS that include things like low birth weight, exposure to second-hand smoke, sleeping on a soft surface or on the tummy, brain defects, and respiratory infections to name a few.
Until we know more, experts say the best thing parents can do is follow the “Back to Sleep” guidelines closely and carefully, which include making sure your baby always sleeps free from blankets, pillows, or other loose bedding — not just “usually.”
I know I certainly will be.