I am not a doctor or healthcare professional. Please consult your child’s physician regarding SIDS prevention and safe sleep and follow their recommendations.
SIDS was my greatest fear when my girls were babies. I was terrified because it was a silent killer and it could happen to anyone, without warning. I had to do everything in my power to keep it from happening to my children.
I spent an inordinate amount of time with my hand pressed up against their little torsos, making sure I could feel their chests moving up and and down with each breath. My anxiety about SIDS ruined many a nap time, simply because I just needed to check on them to make sure they were still breathing. Unsurprisingly, I would often wake them up in the process.
I worried about it all the time, making sure to follow each and every recommendation from the “experts,” for sleep safety, knowing that if something happened to my baby while I was breaking one of the “rules,” I would never forgive myself.
So what is SIDS?
One of the leading causes of death in babies, SIDS stands for sudden infant death syndrome, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, is “the unexplained death usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old.” A baby’s death is only categorized as SIDS if all other causes have been ruled out and there is no other explanation.
What is the main cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?
No one knows exactly what causes sudden infant death syndrome. Most experts seem to think that SIDS is the result of suffocation in some way. The cause of SIDS through suffocation might be related to anything from brain defects that interfere with the baby’s ability to breathe (which no parent has any control over!) or sleeping in a position or environment that physically cuts off the baby’s airway.
How long do you have to worry about SIDS? What age is SIDS most likely?
Sudden infant death syndrome remains a risk until your baby reaches one year of age. I do a little happy dance when my kids turn one, in celebration of the fact that I successfully managed not to suffocate them during the risk period. It was such a relief to be able to put them down with blankets, stuffed animals, and loveys and not have to worry about putting them to bed in a certain position.
While SIDS continues to occur up to 12 months of age, it becomes less and less likely as your baby gets older. The highest risk period is between 1 and 4 months. The vast majority of cases occur before 6 months of age, so you can start to breathe a little easier on your baby’s half birthday, too.
What percentage of infants die from SIDS?
SIDS statistics indicate that somewhere around .05 percent (1 in 2000) of babies die of SIDS. The actual number may be higher due to imperfect reporting, but suffice it to say that sudden infant death syndrome is not very common. You are equally likely to require medical treatment from an injury by pillow – I don’t imagine that’s something you worry about on a daily basis.
Who’s most at risk for SIDS?
Unfortunately, some of the risk factors for SIDS are things you don’t have any control over. African-American and Native American babies are at a higher risk, and baby boys of any race are more likely to pass away from SIDS regardless of race. Infants born prematurely are in greater danger as well.
How can you prevent SIDS in 2018?
The good news is that today there are lots of ways to prevent SIDS! Efforts to raise awareness about sudden infant death syndrome prevention have reduced the rate of SIDS considerably. Here are the things to consider:
Breastfeeding reduces SIDS risks
One of the best things you can do to avoid SIDS is to breastfeed your baby. Mothers who breastfeed reduce their baby’s risk of SIDS by as much as 60 percent! Even if you can’t breastfeed for the full 12 months that’s recommended, know that every drop of breastmilk that your baby gets is beneficial to them in reducing the risk of SIDS. So whether that means you breastfeed for 3 months, 3 days or 3 hours, it all benefits your baby.
If you give your baby formula: yes it is associated with a higher risk of SIDS when compared to breastfeeding. But take comfort in the fact that the risk of SIDS is so small to begin with that even if you double the chances, it’s still highly unlikely that your baby will die of SIDS. In many cases, the benefits of using formula in your life outweigh the risks.
Your baby has a much greater chance of succumbing to SIDS if you or someone in the household smokes. It’s best to stop smoking as soon as you find out you’re pregnant, or even sooner if you know you plan to get pregnant in the near future.
The best place for a newborn to sleep is the crib
As tough as it is to stay awake while nursing your newborn, you significantly reduce the risk of SIDS by putting them to bed in their crib by themselves with no pillows, blankets, toys, or crib accessories like bumper pads.
I know – it doesn’t feel quite right putting your tiny baby in that huge bed all by themselves. It feels so much more natural to have them tucked up against you, cozy and warm. Goodness knows no one is perfect: I can’t tell you how many times I fell asleep with my babies while I nursed them in the middle of the night, but most experts still suggest that it isn’t safe and should be avoided.
However, Sweet Sleep by the La Leche League suggests that if you follow certain precautions, co-sleeping isn’t any more dangerous than your baby sleeping in a crib. So if you want to co-sleep in spite of the warnings or if you find yourself becoming a habitual “accidental” co-sleeping parent like me, you might want to check it out.
Note that baby devices like swings, rockers and even the car seat are not considered safe for sleep either. The incline can cause their heads to roll forward and cut off the airway. It’s basically impossible to keep a baby awake in the car though, just from my own personal experience.
Sleep in the same room as your baby
While it’s not recommended to share a bed or other sleep surface with your baby, sleeping with your baby nearby in your room is actually encouraged! Some experts recommend keeping baby in a crib next to your bed for as long as one year – until the risk of SIDS is no longer a concern. I was never able to sleep well with my babies so close: their little noises and grunts would keep me awake, so I only kept them in my room for a few months.
Back is best
Research has shown that it’s safest for babies to sleep on their back. Unfortunately this can be a difficult guideline for parents to follow because babies often don’t sleep well on their backs. A good swaddle can help baby feel more secure and may help them sleep better. You can let them sleep on their tummy once they start rolling over on their own. I always breathed a sigh of relief at that stage because my babies instantly started sleeping better once they could sleep on their stomachs.
Prevent SIDS with cooler temperatures in the sleep environment
Getting too warm increases the risk of SIDS for babies as well. Try to keep their sleeping environment right around 70 degrees. There’s no need to cover them with blankets if you keep the room at the right temperature. A set of footed PJS and a sleep sack or swaddle is plenty to keep them warm. Don’t worry about their cold hands – as long as their core is warm, they’re fine.
Be careful when you go out in the winter as well! It can be tempting to pile on layer after layer in the winter because we’re so worried about them getting cold, but babies only need about one extra layer than whatever you’re wearing. Anymore than that and baby will be in danger of overheating.
This is especially dangerous if you pile on the layers in the car seat and then put them in the car. The car will eventually get to a more comfortable temperature, but baby will still be stuck underneath all of those layers getting way too warm and possibly overheating.
Use a pacifier
Finally something we’re allowed to do! Apparently research has shown that pacifiers actually reduce the risk of SIDS, so let your baby suck on his or her binky to their heart’s content. It is recommended that you wait until breastfeeding is well established before introducing a pacifier, but I always used one right from the beginning and never had trouble. If you’re having problems breastfeeding, you may want to wait a month or so before introducing a pacifier.
How to stop worrying about SIDS
I will be the first one to admit that all of these safety recommendations can be really frustrating as a parent. It feels like anything that calms a baby or helps them to sleep better is considered unsafe and not recommended. It’s especially difficult when you consider that no one can tell you exactly why it isn’t safe to let your baby sleep on their tummy or with you in your bed.
It’s easy for a well-rested expert to say that it’s unsafe to let a baby sleep in the swing, but when it’s 2 AM and the baby hasn’t slept in the crib for more than 15 minutes at a time all night long, that swing starts to look pretty good in spite of the possible risks.
Do the best you can to protect your baby from SIDS, but know that there are no perfect parents. You probably won’t be successful at following all of the rules all of the time.
Remember that obsessively checking on your baby while they sleep doesn’t help keep them safe, and may simply result in more stress when you accidentally wake them up in the process of making sure they’re still breathing.
Try to relax and not let yourself be consumed with worry and anxiety over SIDS. There is a 99.95 percent chance that your baby will be fine, especially if you follow safe sleep guidelines!
Melinda worked with children for years in a professional setting before becoming a full-time stay at home mom. She currently has three young children, and enjoys sharing tips and ideas about parenting and how to manage a home with excellence. She’s been featured on Heathline and Her View From Home.