It’s a parent’s worst nightmare to lose a child. But every five days in Los Angeles County a baby suffocates while sleeping, making bed-sharing and unsafe sleep environments the leading preventable cause of infant death in the county.
According to recently released data from the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN), between 2008 and 2011, more babies died from suffocation due to unsafe sleep than all accidental deaths for children under age 14 combined. This means that unsafe sleeping kills more babies than drowning, poisoning and car accidents.
These infants are dying from a number of suffocation dangers. Autopsy reports conducted by the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner reveal that the top causes of suffocation include babies sharing a bed with parents or sleeping on a couch; cribs cluttered with blankets, pillows, bumper pads and stuffed toys; and babies sleeping on their side or stomach.
Infants under the age of 1 are at greatest risk of suffocation because their bodies are still developing. For the first three to four months, babies can only breathe through their nose and don’t have the strength to move their head. A baby’s nose, unlike an adult’s, doesn’t have cartilage. So when that nose is pressed against an object, like a stuffed animal, couch cushions or even a parent’s arm while sleeping in bed, it can flatten easily. With the opening to its nostrils blocked, the baby can’t breathe and suffocates.
This type of death is silent and quick, occurring within seconds. Even the lightest sleeper wouldn’t necessarily be able to save their baby, and baby monitors won’t catch these deaths either.
However, by taking a few precautions, every parent and caregiver is capable of putting their baby to sleep safely.
These precautions are simple. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends sharing a room – not a bed – with a baby, and keeping cribs clear of blankets and soft objects. ICAN’s Safe Sleep for Baby campaign endorses the same recommendations because there is no scientific evidence that bed-sharing is safe. However, there is evidence that it increases the risk of sudden infant deaths and infant suffocation.
Certain baby equipment and furniture can also increase the risk of suffocation. While it might be convenient to leave babies in a car seat or stroller after they’ve fallen asleep, these places are dangerous because the baby isn’t lying down or sitting up straight. Since infants don’t have the neck muscle strength to hold up their head, this slumped, in-between position can block their airway, leading to suffocation.
Other unsafe sleeping spots include couches, recliners and easy chairs. In these situations, a baby can slide down between an adult and the side of a chair or couch, get wedged in a corner or between cushions, or scoot into an unsafe position.
The only way to fully eliminate the risk of suffocation is to put a baby on his or her back in a crib or bassinet that’s free of clutter (such as pillows, bumper pads, blankets and stuffed toys) until the baby’s first birthday.
Many parents know that they should never leave young children alone in a bathtub, that they need to place medications and household cleaning products out of a child’s reach, and that it’s the law to have a car seat in their vehicle.
It’s also everyone’s responsibility to take similar precautions when putting a baby to sleep, so that no one wakes up to this tragedy again.
With the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association recognizing September as Baby Safety Month, one of the best ways to keep babies safe is to remove the risks of suffocation while sleeping.
How to put your baby to sleep safely:
1) Share a room, not a bed. If you’re breastfeeding, put your baby back in a crib or bassinet after nursing.
2) Lay babies down to sleep in a crib or bassinet with a firm mattress. Portable cribs, like a Pack ‘n Play, are a good alternative.
3) Give babies space to breathe: No pillows, bumper pads, blankets or toys in the crib or bassinet. Even one object is a suffocation risk.
4) Place babies on their back every time, at night and for naps.
Deanne Tilton Durfee is executive director of the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN). ICAN and ICAN Associates have partnered with First 5 LA to raise awareness about the Safe Sleep for Baby campaign and save families from the preventable tragedy of losing an infant due to unsafe sleeping practices.