By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
New parents often surround themselves with gadgets, gear and germ fighters in the name of protecting their babies. Creating a safe sleep environment for baby is straightforward and simple. It can reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, commonly known as SIDS. It also can prevent suffocation and strangulation deaths.
“Really, the safest place for them to sleep is on their backs in their own crib or cradle,” said Tupelo pediatrician Dr. Eric Street. Stuffed animals and blankets need to stay out, too.
SIDS and suffocation deaths are a significant part of Mississippi’s infant mortality rate – which is the highest in the country.
The Child Death Review Panel, which is charged with delving into child deaths in Mississippi and making recommendations to reduce deaths, found that 38 infants in Mississippi died as a result of SIDS. The panel found 37 infants died because of suffocation or strangulation because they were sleeping in an unsafe place – 34 of those deaths happened with co-sleeping – sleeping in bed with a parent.
Since 1992, the rate of SIDS has dropped substantially, especially as the Back to Sleep campaign gained ground, Street said.
“It’s basically been cut in half,” Street said.
Although the numbers have fluctuated some in the past 10 years, the shifts do not seem to have been statistically significant, said Dr. Paul Byars, Mississippi state epidemiologist.
“In Mississippi, we do have SIDS deaths that occur every year,” Byars said. “We want to get information out to parents and caregivers on best practices to reduce those incidents.”
Since her daughter died 12 years ago, Mississippi SIDS Alliance Executive Director Cathy Files has seen the message to parents sharpen.
“I just think the education is out there more,” Files said. There’s definitely more support for families effected by SIDS.
“They don’t have to go through it alone,” Files said.
SIDS, by definition, is a diagnosis of exclusion, Street said. All other possible causes have been ruled out. Recent studies are focusing on the brain stem and how serotonin levels may play a role in SIDS deaths, Files said.
“They’re getting closer,” she said.
Premature infants and those exposed to cigarette smoke in the womb or after they are born seem to be at higher risk, but SIDS does happen to babies without risk factors. Right now, there’s no way to know which babies are truly susceptible to SIDS.
“Everyone thinks, ‘It’s a tragedy that not going to happen to me,’” said April Tutor, who lost her 5-month-old daughter Maddie to SIDS three years ago.
Maddie had no risk factors for SIDS – she wasn’t premature, she wasn’t exposed to cigarette smoke and her caregivers made sure she slept on her back.
“She was just a happy, contented baby,” said Tutor, who now lives in Ecru.
The Monday before Thanksgiving 2007, Maddie didn’t wake up from her afternoon nap at daycare. The caregivers, who had checked on her 10 minutes before, started CPR immediately when they found she wasn’t breathing, but it was too late.
An autopsy ruled out other natural and accidental causes of death, including choking.
“It was hard to understand what happened,” said Tutor, who leaned on her family, church and the Mississippi SIDS Alliance to get through that particularly difficult first year.
The Tutor family suffered a second blow a few months later when a cousin lost a baby to SIDS.
Over the past three years, Tutor has found solace in her faith and in helping other families who have lost children.
“I miss her every day. If I could change it I would, but I can’t,” Tutor said. “But I know she’s in a better place.”
Fighting the old school
The fight against SIDS and suffocation deaths has to take on old practices.
For some older parents and grandparents, back to sleep goes against the advice they were given years ago.
“They were told to put babies on their stomachs to sleep because of the worry about choking on spit up,” Street said.
But studies have shown the choking doesn’t happen; that babies naturally swallow any fluid that comes into their mouths, Street said.
For babies battling reflux, pediatricians are now generally recommending the mattress be raised from underneath instead of using wedges that raise the baby up.
There’s a risk that the baby can slide down the wedge and crimp their airway or get trapped on the side. The wind pipe is only as big as the pinkie finger.
“In a newborn, that’s pretty tiny,” Street said.
Parents and grandparents also want to wrap babies up in layers of clothing that aren’t necessary and could be dangerous, because overheating seems to make babies more vulnerable to SIDS.
“A lot of times, we think babies get cold because they’re little,” said Carla Stanford, MSU Extension Service area agent for child and family development. “You can overheat a baby in a heavy blanket sleeper.”
Parents often feel like babies are safer in bed with them, but it doesn’t protect a child from SIDS and it increases the risk of suffocation because an adult accidentally rolls over a baby during sleep.
But that doesn’t mean babies need to be far from their parents.
“Sleeping in the same room does seem to be protective,” Street said.
Parents need to have unusual symptoms checked out, particularly irregular breathing, apnea episodes, choking or gagging for no reason
“Anything that doesn’t seem right needs to be checked out,” Stanford said.
Contact Michaela Gibson Morris at (662) 678-1599 or michaela.morris@ djournal.com.