My heart lurched when I saw the photograph embedded in the CDC’s report Wednesday on cases of infant death associated with side-sleep positioning devices. I used the exact same device that’s in the picture to position my babies to sleep on their sides.
Those babies are 19 and 16 now. Back when I had them, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was still recommending that infants be placed to sleep in their cribs either on their sides or their backs — any way but on their tummies — to reduce risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Such devices have also been used to help infants with gastric reflux, ill-shaped heads, and other conditions. Like many other mothers and fathers of our era, we dutifully purchased a device designed to keep our children on their sides once we’d set them down that way.
The report notes, “unintentional suffocation is the leading cause of injury death among children aged <1 year in the United States, accounting for nearly 1,000 infant deaths annually. Since 1984, an estimated fourfold increase has been observed in accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed, with many of these deaths linked to unsafe sleep environments.”
The CDC’s report describes 13 cases of infant death associated with sleep positioning devices that were reported to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission between 1997 and 2011. Nine of the babies had been placed to sleep on their sides; one had been placed belly-down, and the exact sleep placement of the others was uncertain.
Granted, 13 is not a huge number of deaths during that long a period, but try telling that to the bereaved families. Plus, the accompanying editorial notes, the report doesn’t include babies who survived.
The babies whose deaths are reported here ranged in age from 21 days to four months. Some had risk factors for SIDS: for instance, eight were male, four were born prematurely, and three were members of a pair of twins, and four had recently experienced respiratory problems.
In 2005, the AAP revised its recommendation, saying that the safest way to put babies to sleep is on their backs — not their bellies or their sides, and that no device is needed to help keep them that way as they sleep. Still, it takes time for such messages to sink in; people tend to pass seemingly helpful items such as side-positioning devices along when new babies are born.
So, based on what we now know, let’s be clear: According to public health officials, the safest way to lay your baby down to sleep is in his own crib, on his back, with no soft bedding, stuffed toys, positioning devices or anything else that poses a potential suffocation risk (unless your pediatrician has specifically recommended otherwise because of a diagnosed medical condition).