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Journey to Parenthood

Reinventing an Old Idea to Prevent Infant Sleep Deaths

Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP

Author, The Happiest Baby on the Block

Since 1998, there’s been a 400 percent increase in suffocation deaths due to unsafe sleeping habits. If you’re a new parent, you’ll do everything in your power to keep your baby safe. You research the best car seats and strollers, and you vow never to let your baby sleep on the stomach.

That last point is important because a shocking 3,700 babies die in their sleep every year. And, despite a national safe sleep campaign, we’ve been unable to reduce that death rate — in almost 20 years.

Why are thousands still dying?​​​​​​​

I am concerned that many of these deaths are the unintended consequence of our own advice. In the early 1990s, we discovered that stomach sleeping increased Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). We launched a “Back to Sleep” campaign and reduced SIDS by 40 percent in five years. But since then, we’ve failed to make further progress. Why? Part of the problem may be bed sharing. About 70 percent of sleep deaths now occur in risky locations.

You’d think all parents would practice the ABCs of safe sleep: Alone. On the Back. In a Crib. But many babies just don’t sleep well on the back, alone, in a crib, and their tired parents intentionally or inadvertently bed share because they’re exhausted and desperate for sleep. (Currently, 60 percent of breastfeeding moms bed share at some time each night.)

A new (old) idea

If unsafe sleeping is a major risk, and if it’s a result of frequent infant waking, then by improving baby sleep it may be possible to reduce the temptation to bed share and reduce these tragic deaths.

Grandmothers have known for thousands of years that rocking, shushing and cuddling babies helps them sleep. Well, the good news is that today’s parents have three tools that deliver these sensations and immediately improve sleep: swaddling, white noise and rhythmic motion (sleeping in rockers and swings is not safe, but totally flat motion — like a “smart sleeper” — is perfectly safe).

By encouraging parents to use these sleep-boosting techniques, there’s an excellent chance that we can dramatically reduce the risk of infant sleep death today.

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