At one day old, Henry Morris sleeps soundly on his back in MUSC Children’s Hospital, swaddled in a green blanket. That’s no accident.
“The safest way is definitely on his back,” his father Ryan says. “Not on his side or his chest. So we diminish the risk of SIDS from both environment and preexisting conditions or exposure.”
The importance of safe sleep for babies has become clearer than ever following the recall of the popular Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play Sleepers. At least 32 children died after rolling over or to the side in the cloth-covered cradles and suffocating. Social media has been flooded with posts from parents who don’t want to give up the sleepers they credit with helping their little ones get through the night.
But a gathering of baby nurses at MUSC Children’s Health shows there are safe alternatives. They’ve come together for a regularly scheduled meeting to focus on a safe sleep campaign at the hospital that involves everything from training videos to crib safety cards to parent education.
Bottom line: There’s only one safe way for a baby to sleep. “Alone on their back in their crib, without any fluffy blankets, stuffed animals or bumpers,” says nurse manager Katy Decker, and her colleagues agree.
Is there anything besides that? “No,” she answers.
But there are things parents can do to help babies get to sleep and stay asleep safely, the nurses say. It can be a matter of life and death. “More than one baby a week dies in South Carolina related to unsafe sleep,” Decker says.
Here’s what they suggest.
First, it’s OK to use a government-approved device such as a swing to help the baby fall asleep. You just can’t let the baby stay there and then go to sleep for the night yourself. “Set a timer for 15 minutes,” suggests Decker. “Then move the baby to the crib or bassinet.”
She says it’s fine to have a bassinet next to your bed for the baby. “That’s what we recommend for the first six months to a year of life.”
Second, be prepared to tolerate some crying as the baby gets used to life outside of the womb. “It takes repetition for a baby to learn a habit. It’s really easy to say, ‘My baby doesn’t like to sleep on its back.’ But you have to have the knowledge and the patience to say, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
Third, find ways to cope while the baby gets used to sleeping in a crib. That includes babies born with medical problems such as withdrawal due to the mother’s use of addictive medication during pregnancy. “Families have to have coping skills,” says Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Nurse Manager MaryLaura Smithwick. “Let the baby stay safe. Put it in the crib on its back, close the door and walk away.”
Fourth, learn how to swaddle the baby. “That’s completely safe and mimics the womb, so that’s a good thing,” Decker says.
Fifth, don’t try to elevate the baby’s head by putting a towel under the mattress, the nurses all say. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees — even if the baby has gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD.
Decker says no baby should die due to unsafe sleeping conditions. “It’s like car seats 20 or 30 years ago. We decided every child had to be in a car seat, and it became a preventable death. We think unsafe sleep is a preventable death as well.”