I grew up in a home where I knew I had a sister called Sharon who had died when she was a baby. We had her photo in the living room and her favourite teddy was in my Mum’s room. Periodically my sister and I would ask ‘How old would Sharon have been now?’ and my Mum would answer with an age. I don’t remember ever having the conversation about why or how Sharon died, I was far too young to ever understand the magnitude of what this meant to my Mum.
It wasn’t until I was grown and had my first baby that I really could comprehend the pain my Mum must have felt, and how hard it must have been for her to have us ask ‘How old would Sharon be now?’. My sister Sharon died when she was less than six months old, leaving the heartache and devastation and grief that losing a child has. To me my Mum is my rock and to this day I will never understand how she carried on after such a loss.
When I had Jack I researched about SIDS as deep inside me there was that underlying fear (as I am sure there is for any new parent). I looked at how I could reduce the risk of ever losing Jack. Back when my Mum had Sharon there was very little research or advice about how to reduce risks, and what impact our actions can have on our baby’s health and safety. Fifty Five years later, research has given us a much better insight on the things we can do to reduce the risk of SIDS.
What is SIDS?
SIDS stands for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, it is what used to be referred to as cot death. Even writing these words fill me with a sense of sadness and fear! It is the unexpected and sudden death of a baby without an obvious reason.
Statistics on SIDS
The current unexplained infant death rate in the UK is 1 per 3200 live births. In the UK SIDS claims approximately 240 lives each year (figures for the UK in 2016) and that is around 5 babies week. The lullaby trust tells us that around 85% sudden infant deaths happen in the first six months of life.
Sleeping with your baby on a sofa increases the chance of SIDS by a staggering 50 times. It is estimated that over a third of the deaths from SIDS could have be avoided if women did not smoke during pregnancy. One of the major breakthroughs came when researchers realised that a baby placed sleeping on their front was six times more at risk than a baby placed sleeping on their back. This revelation in the research has reduced the rate of SIDS by 79% since the ‘back sleeping’ message was launched in 1991.
How to reduce the risk of SIDS
As the cause of SIDS still remains unexplained and prevention is not conclusively proven, it is hard to know exactly why so many beautiful babies are taken from this world in this way. However, research has provided us with measures that are all proven to at least reduce the risks.
The Best sleeping position for your baby
It is now advised that you baby should be placed on their back sleeping and not their front. The lullaby Trust tells us that there is substantial evidence from around the world that putting your baby sleeping on their back for sleep (and naps) significantly reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
I was concerned, as a new Mum, that Jack may vomit and choke in this position, especially as he was suffering so badly with reflux. I would spend most of my evening constantly checking on him and adjusting his position, which just disturbed his sleep. So please don’t feel like you have to keep a constant watch.
Your baby will start to roll over at about five months, and this is perfectly normal. Once they get to the age of rolling, the risk of SIDS is significantly reduced, however still settle them down on their backs sleeping. I would check on Jack (and Jessica) and after this age would end up in all kinds of crazy positions in the cot, this is perfectly normal and fine.
As Annabel Karmel reminds us in her book, Complete first year planner, your baby should be placed with her feet at the foot of the cot, to prevent her from wriggling down under any covers or blankets. Or you could use a swaddling blanket or baby sleeping bag. Which is what I eventually did with Jack, and from birth with Jessica. This gave me peace of mind and helped both sleep better safely.
Swaddling your baby and baby sleeping bags
I found swaddling Jack and Jessica helped them sleeping much better. If you decide to swaddle your baby, the lullaby trust advice that you should swaddle for each sleep in the day and night as a regular routine. They also advice that you are mindful of the following:
- never swaddle baby sleeping on their front
- use thin materials
- Do not swaddle too tight
- Do not swaddle above the shoulders (some babies like to be swaddled with their arms out)
- Always check your baby’s temperature to ensure they do not get too hot
Baby sleeping bags can be used from birth, however they become really useful for when your baby starts to roll and moved about in their cot (from about five months old). I used a baby sleeping bag once Jack and Jessica started to wriggle out of their swaddle, which caused them to get cold and wake up. The baby sleeping bag stopped me worrying about them going under any covers and it kept them warm when they started to roll in their cot, and stopped the risk of them getting tangled in blankets.
The safest room temperature for babies
There is much evidence that there is an increased risk of SIDS in babies that get too hot. The ideal room temperature is 16 -20 degrees Celsius. It is advised that you use a room thermometer. It is also advised that you do not position your baby;’s cot near a radiator or heater.
Every baby is different and will have a different tolerance to cold and heat, therefore the room temperature range is a guide. It is important to check your baby’s temperature by feeling her tummy or neck. If your baby is sweating or she feels very hot to touch, then remove some blankets. Your baby’s face and hands and feet may cool, don’t worry this is perfectly normal.
The best mattresses and bedding for your baby
It is important sleeping your new baby on their own sleep surface such as a Moses basket or cot. The lullaby trust advice sleeping in the same room for at least the first six months.
It is important that your baby’s mattress is new, clean and dry. The lullaby trust recommend a firm, flat and waterproof mattress and it is important to ensure that the mattress fits your cot or Moses basket properly.
If your baby is under a year then avoid using soft bedding like duvets, pillows as they can increase the risk of SIDS (using a pillow has been proved to increase risk by up to 2.5 times). Do not use cot bumpers, as babies lose heat through their head, so if it is buried in a bumper heat loss will be reduced and it could increase the risk of SIDS. Also, remove any soft toys and teddies before any sleep period.
Firmly tuck in all sheets and blankets (we recommend organic cotton) and do not put them above your baby’s shoulder height. I would recommend using layers of lightweight blankets, so they can be removed or increased according to your baby’s temperature, or I recommend a baby sleeping bag, with a lightweight blanket if they get cold.
Second Hand Mattresses
There is some research that using a second hand mattress (if bought from outside your family home) can increase the risk of SIDS although it has not been proven that there is a link. Of course, it is perfectly normal to use your current mattress for a second or third baby. My advice would be just to check the general condition of your current mattress make sure that it has a waterproof cover and is not displaying any wear and tear such as rips, or tears. Double check that the mattress is still flat and firm.
Sharing a room with your baby
The lullaby trust recommend that you place your baby sleeping in a separate Moses basket or cot in the same room as you for the first 6 months, even during the day.
Co-sleeping with your baby
It is your choice whether you choose to share your bed with your baby for the night. However, the majority of the advice from research is that co-sleeping can increase the risks of SIDS. In order to make your bed a safer place follow these guides:
- avoid letting pets or older siblings sleep with you and baby in the bed
- Make sure baby will not fall out of your bed or get trapped between the wall and the mattress
- Keep sheets, blankets and pillows away from your baby as they could make your baby overheat or obstruct breathing.
Do not co-sleep with your baby if:
- You are on the sofa. Sleeping with your baby on a sofa or armchair can increase the risk of SIDS by 50 times!
- You have been drinking or taking drugs (even prescription medication that may make you drowsy)
- You or your partner are a smoker
- You are extremely tired
- if your baby was born prematurely (37 weeks or before) or your baby was a lower weight (2.5 kg)
I never smoked but my husband does, so we never co-slept with either Jack or Jessica. I would have a snuggle with them in my bed and sometimes do their last bottle there. I would then place them in the cot next to my bed. This worked incredibly well for us. I have to be honest I did move them both to their own cot before six months, because they were both big babies (9lb 6 when born) and got too big for Moses baskets or travel cots, and we just couldn’t fit the full size cot in our bedroom.
I therefore had a sleep monitor that monitored not only sound but movement too. These monitors will set an alarm off if your baby stops moving at all. It would even pick up on their subtle breathing. Although this wasn’t so much fun when they both began to roll, when the alarm went off and I ran in a panic to find Jack had rolled off the sensor and was happily asleep at the top of his cot!
Smoking during pregnancy and around your baby
The Lullaby trust inform us that smoking during pregnancy or after birth can increase SIDS significantly. They state that scientific evidence shows that 30% of SIDS deaths have could be avoided by Mother’s not smoking whilst pregnant. If you add that to the estimated risks of smoking around a baby in the home. Smoking has been estimated to increase the risk by up to 60%.
The Lullaby Trust Offer confidential bereavement support to anyone affected by the sudden and unexpected death of a baby or a young child You can call their helpline which is 0808 802 6868. Or you can get email support at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or click this link to be forwarded to their website
SIDS is a subject that no expecting or new parent really wants to think about, but it is in knowledge of the risks that we can prevent (as much as possible). As a parent you could do everything right, you could follow all the advice and sadly still some precious babys are still taken from us.
I grew up knowing that baby’s could die. My sister Sharon was very sadly taken from my Mum at 5 months old, this was 13 years before I was born, yet her memory was a big part of our life. This experience and the stories of Sharon made me the Mum I am today. It made me a very anxious first mum, but I followed the advice and Jack and Jessica are now 12 and 10.
I can only imagine the pain and loss my Mum felt at the time, but she always says she was grateful for those five short months that she had with Sharon. She also reminds me that If that had not happened then I would not have been bought into this world. It is hard to know what justification or reason there could ever be for a baby to be taken from this world so early, however I do hope that my story and this article will provide you with some advice to help you do all you can to reduce the risks for your baby.
Please feel free to ask any questions below or leave any comments you would like to add to this article.