‘It’s very preventable:’ Unsafe sleep practices common in accidental infant suffocation deaths

Updated: May. 2, 2019 at 11:26 AM EDT
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CONWAY, SC (WMBF) - The death of a baby is always devastating, especially when it can be prevented.

A recent study published in the journal called Pediatrics shows accidental suffocation is a leading cause of infant deaths within their first year, with 82 percent of those tragedies occurring in a bed. Fourteen percent of all sudden unexpected infant death cases from 2011 to 2014 were classified as suffocation.

The study found accidental suffocation and strangulation rates have increased since 1999, from around one in every 17,000 live births to nearly one in every 4,348 in 2015.

“I would say that one infant dying of a needless suffocation death is one too many,” said Dr. Marc Bahan, a pediatrician at CMC Pediatrics Carolina Forest.

According to the CDC, nearly 3,500 babies die suddenly and unexpectedly each year in the U.S. Doctors say the most important thing to know is these deaths are entirely preventable.

In the study, researchers found two reasons behind the infant suffocation deaths - babies fell asleep on their stomach or side, and they slept in a bed with an adult. Over half of those deaths were caused by soft bedding, meaning pillows, blankets, and couch cushions.

Bahan said in his over 20 years of practice in South Carolina, he’s seen at least 40 cases of sudden infant deaths, with a majority attributed to unsafe sleep practices.

“The highest risk is zero to six months, but up to nine months they’re still at significant risk. What happens is the infant’s respiratory centers are fairly immature and their upper body strength is fairly weak. For us, when we fall asleep, sometimes your pillow’s a little too much over, but somehow, we sleep and move our head around. Infants actually fall asleep a little bit too much and can’t lift themselves up. So, it’s pretty similar to holding a pillow over a baby’s head," Bahan said.

Doctors also recommend replacing loose blankets in the crib with sleep sacks, which is a wearable blanket where a baby can sleep safely by decreasing the chance of suffocation. They say safe sleep is as simple as A-B-C.

Babies sleep safest when they sleep alone, meaning no stuffed animals, toys, blankets or bumpers in the crib. If they’re sleeping on their back, babies are less likely to get their head stuck on the mattress or the side of the bed. Doctors also say babies should be in an uncluttered crib or other safe sleep surface, and never sleeping in a parent’s bed.

“It’s very preventable 99.9 percent of the time, and if you start early and just be a little bit more persistent with them sleeping on their backs and sleeping in their cribs, they get used to it very quickly. Once they learn it, it gets easier and easier," Bahan said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents share a room, but not a bed, with their baby for at least the first six months and up to their first year.

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