Few things in life are as heartbreaking as the sudden death of an infant. The sudden, unexplained death of an infant, known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), leaves parents in shock and tormented by unanswerable questions. Did they do anything that could have caused their baby’s death? Could they have done anything to prevent the tragedy?
SIDS is poorly understood and the cause is still unknown. Doctors think it might be associated with defects in the portion of an infant’s brain that controls breathing and arousal from sleep.
The Mayo clinic defines SIDS as the unexplained death, usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old.
Part of what makes SIDS so terrifying is that it kills newborns who seem otherwise healthy. It does so without warning. And no one really knows how common it is.
Some measures have helped to reduce the numbers, but SIDS is the leading cause of death for infants between 1 month and 1 year of age.
The “Back to Sleep” public health campaign in the 1990s instructed mothers and other caregivers to place babies on their backs to sleep. This campaign is credited with cutting SIDS deaths in half, an astonishing decline, in just two decades. In 1993 nearly 4,700 U.S. infants died from SIDS.
Here’s the thing: it can happen to anyone, so it’s best inform yourself as best you can on the issue.
Because the exact cause of the sudden death of an otherwise healthy baby is unknown, doctors can only give advice on factors that might make an infant more vulnerable to the syndrome.
Debunking SIDS myths
As with anything that is ill-understood, SIDS has its own list of myths of do’s and don’ts that’s not always helpful. Here is well-known pediatrician, Dr. Harvey Karp, author of “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” in his article for CNN debunking some of the myths.
Myth 1: Baby must have silence to be able to sleep.
Not true. And the reason is so obvious that you can kick yourself for not realizing it yourself. As Dr. Karp points out, the womb is a noisy place: “…louder than a vacuum cleaner and running 24 hours a day.” For nine months, the growing baby was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic whooshing of the blood flowing through the placenta. Silence is probably disconcerting to her.
The truth is, your baby will sleep best if you play loud, rumbly white noise during all naps and at night, says Dr. Karp.
Myth 2: Never wake your baby when she’s sleeping.
Nope. Dr. Karp advises parents to gently wake their baby from day one and leave them to drop off to sleep again. This will teach the baby to self-sooth. When putting the baby to bed, just tickle her neck or feet until her eyes drowsily open, she’ll soon drop off again. This the first step towards sleeping through the night, says the doctor.
Myth 3: Some babies don’t like to be swaddled because they want to feel free.
It’s more likely that the parent wants to feel free and can’t imagine that their baby doesn’t crave freedom too.
Babies don’t need freedom, they need the feeling of security they had in the womb, says Dr. Karp, and swaddling is the first step to calming a baby. A baby that’s not wrapped, will flail her arms and startle easily which doesn’t help her to drop off easily.
Myth 4: We should teach babies to sleep in their own rooms.
Just having your baby sleep with you in the same room can reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, says Karp. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the parent’s room for at least six months (always on their back, in their own bed). Besides, it’s much more convenient for feedings and diaper changes remarks Dr. Karp.
Myth 5: Swaddling should be stopped after two months.
This advice was given by the pediatrics academy after a study found that swaddled babies who roll to the stomach have double the risk of SIDS compared to unwrapped babies. Dr, Karp points out that an eight-year review of data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found only 22 sudden unexplained infant deaths related to swaddling.
Since sudden unexplained infant death strikes one in 1,200 babies and thousands of babies were probably swaddled, swaddling may introduce a theoretical risk, but there is not a lot of proof it is causing an increase in sudden unexplained infant death, says Dr. Karp.
Two to four months after birth is the peak period for SIDS, so babies should still be swaddled during that time.