Whether or not it was planned, the arrival of a new baby in any family is an exciting time. Newborns and infants bring joy into a home, make older siblings beam with pride, and give moms and dads new reason to set lofty goals.

But for many parents — especially first-time moms — a new baby in the home is also a time of worry. It’s no secret that parents worry about just about anything that could possibly go wrong with their baby. But their is at least one concern that’s fairly well-grounded in reason: SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Each year, about 3,500 babies in the United States die in their sleep. Often, the case is never known. 

While deaths caused by suffocation or strangulation are not technically SIDS cases, most of the medical profession’s preventative measures for SIDS are aimed at reducing the risk of babies accidentally suffocating or choking in their sleep.

October is SIDS Awareness Month throughout the world, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) says that parents and caregivers can give their babies a safe sleep area by taking a few extra steps.

Among them:

Place your baby on his or her back for all sleep times — naps and at night. The prevailing theory for many years was that babies should sleep on their tummies in case they spit up in their sleep. But the CDC now says that if a baby spits up during sleep, its gag reflect will help prevent choking while they’re sleeping on their backs. And babies who sleep on their backs are much less likely to die of SIDS than babies who sleep on their sides and stomach.

Use a firm, flat sleep surface. Obviously babies are soft and delicate, and it’s easy to think that their sleeping areas should be just as soft and delicate. The softer, the more comfortable, the thinking goes. But the CDC says that a mattress in a safety-approved crib, covered only by a fitted sheet, is the way to go. A firm sleep surface helps reduce the risk of SIDS and suffocation. In fact, a recent Pediatrics report revealed that most sleep suffocation deaths in babies occur because of soft bedding.

Keep your baby’s sleep area in the same room where you sleep until your baby is at least six months old. Accidental suffocation or strangulation can occur when a baby is sleeping in an adult bed or other unsafe sleep surfaces, the CDC says. Placing a crib or bassinet in your room is much safer than sharing your bed with your baby; in fact, the CDC says that allowing the baby to sleep in a crib or bassinet rather than your bed may decrease the risk of SIDS by as much as 50 percent. Placing the crib close to your bed, so that the baby is within view  and reach, makes it easier to feed, comfort and monitor your baby, the CDC says. Use this sleep arrangement until the baby is at least six months of age — and, ideally, until they’re at least one year old.

Keep soft bedding out of your baby’s sleep area. This goes back to the point above about most suffocation deaths being caused by soft bedding. The CDC recommends keeping all soft bedding, usch as blankets, pillows, bumper pads, and soft toys out of your baby’s sleep area. Sheets or blankets may help keep the baby warm at night, but they can also increase the risk of suffocation or overheating. If you’re wroried about your baby getting cold while sleeping, the CDC says to dress them in sleep clothing, such as a wearable blanket.

Additionally, the American Association of Pediatrics suggests that babies be breastfed as much and for as long as possible. The AAP recommends breastfeeding as the sole source of nutrition for babies for their first six months, and that breastfeeding continue until at least 12 months. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS, the AAP says.

The AAP also recommends that the baby’s well-child visits be scheduled with their doctor. There has been recent evidence suggesting that immunizations have a protective effect against SIDS.

Finally, the AAP recommends plenty of “tummy time” when the baby is awake, which helps strengthen the neck muscles.

One thing the AAP doesn’t recommend: the use of cardiorespiratory monitors. Some parents have chosen to use the monitors as a precation against SIDS. The AAP says that home cardiorespiratory monitors are helpful for babies with breathing or heart problems, but they have not been found to reduce the risk of SIDS.

What is SIDS exactly?

Doctors readily admit that they don’t know exactly what causes SIDS. 

What is known is that babies are most at risk between one month and four months, and SIDS isn’t a concern after one year of age. Research also suggests that infants who die from SIDS are born with brain abnormalities or defects, such as defects within the network of nerve cells that send signals throughout the body — controlling things like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. Researchers are working to develop screening tests that could help determine which babies have those abnormalities.

Most experts in the field use what they refer to as the “Triple Risk Model” to explain SIDS. That essentially means that even if a child has one factor — such as a brain abnormality — that contributes to SIDS, that alone won’t cause death. The Triple Risk model defines those infants with underlying defects as “vulnerable infants.” It also defines a specific time — generally, during the first six months of life — as the “critical development period.” And, it adds “outside stressors,” such as stomach sleep position, overheating, secondhand smoke, or an upper respiratory tract infection. When those three things overlap, SIDS can occur.

This article is the October 2019 installment of Focus On: Health, presented on the second week of each month by Brennan’s Foot & Ankle Care, Roark’s Pharmacy and Danny’s Drugs as part of the Independent Herald’s Focus On series. A print version of this article can be found on Page A3 of the October 10, 2019 edition of the Independent Herald.