Parents' No. 1 priority is to protect their kids from harm, and this is especially true during a child's first year of life.
An infant relies on his mom and dad to care for his overall well-being, and this includes making sure his sleeping environment is the safest it can be. Taking a few simple precautions has been shown to greatly reduce the risk of crib death, or sudden infant death syndrome.
SIDS is the cause assigned to infant deaths that cannot be explained after a thorough investigation, which includes an autopsy and full review of the child's medical history. It is a silent and sudden death that occurs in a baby who otherwise seems healthy.
SIDS is the leading cause of death among infants ages 1 month to 1 year, and most SIDS deaths occur between 1 and 4 months of age. More than 2,200 babies died of SIDS in 2009, the most recent statistics available.
The American Academy of Pediatrics first issued recommendations for safe sleeping in 1992, and SIDS rates have dropped significantly since then. The most recently revised guidelines were published in 2011. Awareness of these safe-sleep guidelines is important for all caregivers, not just parents.
Current safe sleep environment guidelines include:
■ Sleep positioning. Always place your baby on her back to sleep at all naptimes and at bedtime.
■ A firm sleep surface. The AAP suggests placing your baby in a safety-approved crib, on a firm mattress covered by a fitted sheet.
■ Sleep alone. Bed sharing puts your baby at a high risk for SIDS. Your infant should not sleep with you in an adult bed, on a couch or chair. If you want to be close to your child, place him in a bassinet bedside your bed.
■ Keep the crib clear of clutter. Remove soft objects, toys, pillows, bumpers and loose bedding from your baby's sleep area.
■ Make healthy choices. Exposure to secondhand smoke puts your infant at a higher risk of SIDS, so make sure that no one smokes around your baby or in the environment where she sleeps. Even prenatal exposure to tobacco or other harmful substances such as alcohol can increase the risk of SIDS, so the earlier you choose to eliminate these substances, the better.
■ Breastfeeding. Research shows that babies who are breastfed or are fed with breast milk during their first six months are at a lower risk of SIDS.
There are a few myths associated with SIDS. One is that cribs cause it. That's simply not true. It's the overall sleep environment that we believe causes these heartbreaking infant deaths.
Some people mistakenly believe that by putting your baby in bed with you, you'll be able detect problems and prevent SIDS from happening. Because there are no warning signs or symptoms, it is unlikely that you will hear or sense a problem to prevent SIDS. In fact, sleeping with a baby in an adult bed increases his or her risk of suffocation.
I also hear from parents who are worried their baby will choke if she spits up while sleeping on her back. Spitting up is a reflex to keep the airway clear, and babies who sleep on their backs may even clear these fluids better than those who sleep on their stomachs. There is no evidence of increased risk of SIDS due to babies choking on spit-up.
The recommended safe sleep guidelines have made an enormous difference in the fight against SIDS, so I encourage every parent, grandparent, extended family member and babysitter to follow them.
If you are pregnant or just thinking about having kids, talk to your family doctor or pediatrician about reducing your baby's risk of SIDS.
You can also visit Nichd.nih.gov/sts/Pages/default.aspx for information on the national Safe to Sleep public education campaign.
Dr. Amanda E. Smith is with Saint Joseph Primary Care Associates, part of KentuckyOne Health.