Health & Medicine

Getting the message out about infant sleep safety

A sleeping infant. It's what new parents dream about when they are sitting in a rocking chair, wide awake at 3 a.m.

In addition to an abrupt change of their own sleeping habits, parents also have to sort through mixed messages about safe sleeping environments for children. And Grandma might not know best when it comes to current guidelines.

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, sudden infant death syndrome is the leading cause of death in infants 1 month to 1 year old.

According to the institute, SIDS is the sudden and unexpected death of an infant younger than 1 which cannot be explained after an autopsy, an investigation of the scene and circumstances of the death, and a review of the medical history of the infant and his or her family. Because the causes are unknown, SIDS cannot be entirely prevented. However, there are tips to help families and caregivers reduce the risk.

The institute, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics and other partners, in 1994 launched the national Back to Sleep campaign. The campaign recommends that healthy babies be placed on their backs to sleep in a crib free of soft bedding. Since the campaign began, SIDS deaths have dropped by almost 50 percent. Regardless of the progress, there are still many misconceptions about safe sleeping environments.

Cheryl Herzog Arneill, community educator for SIDS Resources in Kansas City, Mo., blames retailers for some of the confusion.

"Visit the crib section in any retail store, and you'll likely find fluffy blankets, bumper pads and soft toys displayed in cribs," Arneill says. "Any of these soft objects and toys should remain out of your infant's sleep area."

Another misconception Arneill encounters is the fear that a baby will choke while sleeping on his or her back. She says research proves that babies handle spit-up better when on their backs than on their tummies. Some media portrayals of slumbering infants can be confusing for families, she notes, such as magazines and books that picture babies asleep on their stomachs.

Grandparents might not be familiar with current crib rules. A recent study by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of the maker of Halo SleepSack wearable blanket found that grandparents are more likely than parents to place babies on their sides or stomachs to sleep. The older generation also is more likely to place unnecessary and potentially dangerous objects in babies' cribs, increasing the risk for SIDS and accidental suffocation.

In 1991, Halo Innovations founder Bill Schmid lost a daughter to SIDS when she was placed on her stomach while under a grandparent's care. The accident motivated Schmid to develop research-based products such as the Halo SleepSack, which cannot be kicked off by an infant like loose blankets can. It also comes without sleeves, a design that claims to reduce the risk of re-breathing into the sleeve and overheating.

While there are many similar products on the market, the Halo SleepSack is constantly evolving based on research findings, Schmid says. He and his company have partnered with hospitals across the country to provide the sacks in maternity and birthing centers.

At St. Luke's South hospital in Overland Park, Kan., Schmid's product has been used for four years in the well-baby nursery and the neonatal intensive care unit. Nurses and staff in maternity services work to teach new parents about safe sleep practices before they leave the hospital.

"We work hard with parents to change habits, and it's been quite an evolution," says Lesley Pike, manager of maternity services at St. Luke's South.

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