A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Help baby sleep better and reduce risk for SIDS

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, affects babies while they sleep. It can happen when a baby dies for an unexpected reason, usually because the infant stops breathing.

Although it is not very common, pediatricians still want new parents to be aware of how they can reduce the risk of SIDS.

What causes SIDS?

Baby sleeping in crib - SIDS awareness

SIDS occurs in less than 0.1 percent of healthy, full-term babies.

SIDS occurs in less than 0.1 percent of healthy, full-term babies. Research into the cause is ongoing, but recent evidence tells us underdevelopment of the infant brain likely plays a pivotal role.

“In adults, our breathing and heart rate are closely monitored and managed by a part of the brain called the brainstem,” said Dr. David Holz, a Marshfield Clinic pediatrician. “We rely on this system to keep us breathing at night and wake us up if there is a problem. If an adult stops breathing at night, the brain is generally very good at quickly waking us up. However, a newborn’s brain is less developed, and ultimately may fail to wake an infant from sleep if a problem arises. Though we cannot help an infant’s brain mature faster, we can work to make a baby’s environment safer and decrease the risk of causing breathing problems.”

Tummy sleeping is no longer advised

Decades ago, parents were advised to place infants on their stomachs to sleep, thinking this was the safest position if baby was to spit up while sleeping.

“We now know that belly sleeping is one of the primary risk factors for development of SIDS, meaning infants who are placed on their stomachs have a much higher risk of SIDS when compared to babies who sleep on their back,” said Dr. Holz. “This ultimately led to the ‘back to sleep’ initiative, where doctors encourage exclusive back positioning for sleep.”

Factors that help decrease SIDS risk

Start by looking at your baby’s sleeping arrangement. Do you place your baby in a bassinette or crib, or are they sleeping in a type of swing device?

“My personal advice is to have your baby sleep on a flat surface, not a curved one,” Dr. Holz said. “Use a firm mattress with a well fitted sheet. Don’t have any extra blankets or pillows with your baby either.”

Avoid co-sleeping, too, a practice also associated with increased risk of SIDS.

Do not place bumpers in the crib. Your baby can roll to the side and press his face against bumper, cutting off oxygen.

Stuffed animals should not be placed in the crib until the baby is one year old. These toys also can cut off oxygen to the baby.

Some parents feel extra blankets are necessary to keep their child warm at night. Dr. Holz recommends keeping the baby’s room at a temperature where you would be comfortable in a short sleeve shirt, and then add one more layer for baby.

Ceiling fans also can decrease the risk of SIDS.

“Ceiling fans help circulate air and keep baby from overheating,” Dr. Holz said. “You don’t want your baby to sweat. If parents wake their baby and his clothes or hair are damp, then he has on too many layers and is getting too warm. Excessive layers also can increase risk of SIDS.”

Pacifiers can decrease the risk of SIDS, but it’s up to the parent’s discretion to give the baby one.

If you have questions about SIDS or the right sleeping environment for your baby, talk with your baby’s doctor.

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