As a parent, you’re going to worry. You’ll worry about concrete things like whether your baby has gotten enough to eat or if your toddler is warm enough without a jacket. You’ll worry about abstract things like if your child is happy or whether they’ll always “do the right thing.” And you’re going to worry about sleep. Especially when they are a newborn, you’re going to worry about sleep. It’s kind of ironic but some of the biggest worries during the newborn stage are likely to occur when your baby isn’t crying and is actually sleeping peacefully.

But the anxiety is real. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is a terrifying reality that impacts over a thousand American families per year. While SIDS is the leading cause of death in babies under 1 year of age, most SIDS deaths (90%) occur in babies under 6 months of age.

There are many unknowns about SIDS—part of the reason why it is so frightening—but the truth is, there are many things parents can do to help prevent SIDS both during the highest-risk period and beyond.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there are several things you can do to ensure your baby is sleeping as safely as possible.

  • Place your baby on their back to sleep
  • Ensure a firm, flat sleep surface
  • No loose bedding, soft objects, toys, or bumpers in the crib
  • Avoid the use of commercial devices inconsistent with safe sleep recommendations (only things labeled as a “crib,” “bassinet,” or “play yard” are approved for safe sleep)
  • Keep the bedroom/nursery temperature between 68°-72°F to allow for temperature regulation
  • Do not allow smoke around your baby

In addition to sharing what you can do to promote safe sleep, I want to tell you why safe sleep is so important. Knowledge is power and I truly believe that when we know better, we’ll do better!

Suffocation: Putting babies to sleep on their tummies, with blankets surrounding them, or even snuggled in a positioner-type “nest” can put your newborn at risk for suffocation. Stuffed animals, bumpers, and soft blankets certainly do make cribs look warm and cozy. But as boring as it sounds, a firm, flat mattress is the best and safest option for your little one. Infants can get tangled up in blankets and loose bedding and can have their airways blocked. When they are very little and not strong enough to free themselves on their own, anything extra in the crib poses a suffocation risk.

Note: When placing your baby to sleep in their crib or bassinet, you should always be placing them on their back. However, once your baby is able to roll both ways independently, most pediatricians agree that if they roll to their tummy, they are okay to stay there. Run it by your provider first!

Positional Asphyxiation: Sleeping on a firm, flat surface may not seem like a big deal, but when babies are placed to sleep at an incline, it can put them at risk for something called positional asphyxiation. Because babies’ heads are so large and heavy compared to the rest of their body, they are likely to flop forward when their bodies relax into sleep. Babies’ tracheas are also very small and this along with their lack of muscle strength and inability to control their head and neck can cause their airways to become blocked very easily. If you are looking for an alternative place to nap your baby outside of their nighttime sleep space, I would recommend a portable bassinet or play yard—both of which are safe and approved for sleep.

Carbon Dioxide Rebreathing: The concept of “carbon dioxide rebreathing” is why even things marketed as “breathable” are still not safe to use in your baby’s crib, your bed, or for any sleep situation. What many people don’t realize is that experts believe that carbon dioxide rebreathing is highly linked to SIDS. As your baby breaths in oxygen, they breathe out carbon dioxide. If their face is too close to fabric (like the side of a positioner or a bumper in the crib), that little space begins to fill with carbon dioxide which they will begin to inhale more than oxygen. This is also why it’s important to only have a firm mattress in your baby’s crib; softer materials like memory foam can create tiny air pockets that can increase the chances of carbon dioxide rebreathing.

Safe sleep is easily attainable and should be a non-negotiable in my book. I’m all for “you do you” when it comes to most things parenting; whether or not you want to have a medicated or unmedicated birth, breastfeed or formula feed, work in or out of the home, or even how you choose to discipline. But when it comes to sleep, I feel obligated to speak up about unsafe sleep practices. Please know, this does not come from a place of judgment or shame; it is my job to educate families on how to sleep safely because, frankly, lives depend on it!

When you’re in the throes of exhaustion, it can be very easy to rely on any variety of the devices and apparatuses that promise to help your baby sleep well. It can be tempting to bring your baby into bed with you at 3 a.m. when they just won’t fall asleep after a feeding or strap them into a swing because you know it can buy you an extra hour or two before they wake up again. Unfortunately, you now know that these are not safe sleep practices, and as parents, we have enough to worry about to spend time stressing about our babies’ safety when they’re sleeping. It is possible for your child to sleep well and safely and if you need any help, sleep coaches (like me) can help you achieve this.