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14 science-backed ways to lower SIDS risk in babies

Sleep expert Dr. Harvey Karp breaks down the SIDS basics every parent needs to know.

what is sids
@mckinney.ellie / Twenty20

Infant death isn't a topic that's easy to talk about. SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is a terrible and mysterious condition that is responsible for thousands of infant deaths per year in the United States. And what makes SIDS feel especially frightening for parents is that it seems to strike without warning.

But the good news is that with attention to some precautions and guidelines, the risk of SIDS can be reduced significantly. It's my hope that understanding the facts about SIDS can empower parents, ease some of their fears, and help them create the safest sleep environment for their little ones.

So, let's unpack what SIDS is, and what you can do about it.


What exactly is SIDS?

SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, describes infant sleep-related deaths that can't be explained: The babies just stop breathing, but nobody knows why for sure. Some researchers have linked brain abnormalities and brain chemistry abnormalities to SIDS. Another study identified a gene mutation that could play a role in SIDS. The cause of SIDS is still unknown.

Sometimes the acronym SIDS is used interchangeably with another, SUID or Sudden Unexpected Infant Death. SUID includes not just unexplained deaths, but also those caused by suffocation and strangulation.

When are babies most at risk for SIDS?

Babies are at risk for SIDS between 1 month and 1 year of age, but 90% of SIDS cases occur before the six month mark.

How common is SIDS?

SIDS is the cause of death for about 1,300 babies per year in the U.S. according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). SUID or Sudden Unexpected Infant Death, a category which includes deaths from SIDS, suffocation and unknown causes, is the cause of death for about 3,500 babies per year in the United States. SIDS is the leading cause of death for children between 1 month and 1 year of age.

SIDS is significantly less common in the United States than it was 30 years ago. In the 1980s, SIDS tragically claimed the lives of 5,000 babies a year. At that time, parents were told never to put a baby to sleep on their back, because doctors worried back-sleeping babies might choke on their spit-up. In the early 1990s, research proved that stomach sleeping actually quadrupled the risk of SIDS, and the famous Back to Sleep initiative—now called Safe to Sleep—was born, raising public awareness of the importance of sleep safety to lower the risk of SIDS.

Thanks to the efforts of doctors recommending back sleeping for babies and parents following safe sleep guidelines for their babies, SIDS deaths dropped almost 50% in the 1990s—a huge win. Sadly, that progress has stalled out over the past two decades, and suffocation and strangulation deaths have hardly been reduced at all.

What can parents do to lower SIDS risk?

While there's a lot we don't know about the causes of many SIDS deaths, there are certain risk factors associated with infant sleep death that are within some human control.

We know that the two biggest triggers of SUID are sleeping on the stomach and sleeping in an unsafe location. That is why the two most important steps parents can take to reduce SIDS risk are:

1. Put your baby to sleep on their back, not their side or stomach.

2. Give your baby a safe sleeping environment.

The back is the only safe sleeping position for babies. Sleeping on the stomach raises the risk of SIDS by three to four times. When babies struggle to fall asleep on their backs, move around or roll over onto their stomachs, frustrated and tired parents may try things that aren't safe, like putting padded bedding into the bassinet or crib, using an infant sleep positioner, co-sleeping without safety precautions or sleeping with the baby on the couch.

Here are 12 more steps parents can take that have been proven to help reduce the risk of SIDS:

3. Put your baby to sleep on a firm, flat surface. Inclined sleepers, swings, baby nests and car seats are not safe for sleep. Babies' heads are very heavy—and in a sitting position, those heavy heads inevitably droop toward the chest. As a result, the doubling over of the neck or sliding into the sleeper's restraining belt could cut off airflow.

Sadly, inclined sleepers have been linked to more than 70 deaths. Similarly, those cozy-looking baby nests and pillows pose a suffocation risk. If a baby turns their face or partially rolls into one of these plush supports, their thin neck might not be strong enough to lift up their heavy head and place it out of danger. Once face down, it can be difficult for a baby to breathe.

4. Keep your baby out of your bed for the first year. Bed-sharing can be a wonderful way to bond with your little one…after your child celebrates their first birthday. A large study found that 64% of deaths among babies under 2 months happened in a parent's bed. Until your tot blows out that big first birthday candle, it's best that they sleep in their own space.

5. Keep blankets, pillows and stuffed toys out of the sleep space. Blankets, pillows, bumpers and stuffed toys could cover the face causing suffocation. So, for the first year of life, the bassinet and crib is a no-fly-zone for these soft goods.

6. Keep your baby in your room for the first 6 months of life. Studies show that sharing a room during the first six months of life reduces SIDS risk. Having your love-bug close makes it more likely that you'll hear and be able to quickly respond to your baby's needs.

7. Put your baby to sleep with a pacifier. Giving a baby a pacifier when they go to bed has been associated with more than a 50% reduction in SIDS… even if it falls out after 20 minutes. Doctors haven't quite cracked the code as to why sucking works such magic, but because research consistently points to the link between SIDS reduction and pacifiers, the AAP recommends pacis are part of every baby's sleeping routine as soon as nursing is going well.

8. Swaddle for all nights and naps. Snug swaddling helps calm crying by imitating the snug sensation of the womb that babies love so much, making it less likely that a tired parent will feel the need to bring the baby into bed. Swaddling also makes it harder for your baby to roll to the stomach (and nighttime rolling boosts a baby's SIDS risk by eight to 45 times). However, it's important that you stop swaddling as soon as your baby shows signs of rolling over, usually at about 4-months-old.

9. Consider a smart sleeper. SNOO Smart Sleeper was born out of my deep desire to reduce SUID. In the past 20 years, more American babies have died from SUID than the number of combatants killed in the entire Vietnam War—that's a tragedy. Not only does SNOO secure babies on the back, but it imitates the womb with snug swaddling, gentle motion and white noise that helps babies sleep longer. Improving a parent's sleep helps them make smarter decisions and better judgments. And this lessens the temptation parents may have to use an unsafe sleeping surface or bring the baby into bed (one-third of moms have reported accidentally falling asleep with the baby with them in bed or on a sofa, which puts the baby at risk).

10. Breastfeed if you're able to. A 2017 study found that breastfeeding for at least two months—even if supplemented with formula—can slice SIDS risk nearly in half.

11. Quit smoking + maintain a smoke-free home. Both smoking during pregnancy and second-hand smoke have been linked to SIDS.

12. Don't let your baby get too hot… or too cold. Overheating and overcooling put babies at risk for SIDS. So, it's best to channel Goldilocks here and keep the room's temperature just right (between 68°F and 72°F). Avoid hats and resist the urge to overdress your baby. You'll know you've hit the sweet spot if your baby's ears feel slightly warm (neither too hot nor too cold).

13. Practice tummy time during the day. Little bits of baby exercise helps your little one develop the strong muscles they'll need to lift their head and move away from choking and suffocation risks.

14. Keep your baby up to date with immunizations. Respiratory illness raises the risk of SIDS.

Using these steps to reduce SIDS risk will help your baby stay safer... and help you sleep better.

Find Snoo and other safe sleep products on the Motherly Shop!

SNOO Smart Sleeper Bassinet

Snoo Smart sleeper

The SNOO Smart Sleeper was brilliantly designed to boosts a baby's sleep by combining gentle rocking with soothing white noise and snug, safe swaddling. In fact, trials show the SNOO adds 1-2 hours of sleep per night! What is the magic formula? The SNOO automatically responds to your baby's needs by increasing motion and sound when crying is detected — and the compatible "5-second swaddle" will keep would-be escape artists peacefully dreaming. As a result, your baby can learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own.

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Sleepea®, 5-second baby swaddle

Sleepea 5-second baby swaddle

Swaddles have been around for centuries — but we've got to say this update is long overdue! This 5-second swaddle is designed for ease of use on the parent's part and sweet dreams for your baby. With an extra-quiet Velco strap around the middle, even little Houdinis will be contained from midnight breakouts (meaning wake-ups!) the the double-zip function makes diaper changes a breeze. Does your baby want to keep their arms out and up? No problem. This swaddle allows for your baby's preferred arm position.

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We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sudden Unexpected Infant Death and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Data and Statistics, September 18, 2020

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Safe to Sleep

Mayo Clinic, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), May 20, 2020

These challenges from Nike PLAYlist are exactly what my child needs to stay active

Plus a fall family bucket list to keep everyone moving all season long.

While it's hard to name anything that the pandemic hasn't affected, one thing that is constantly on my mind is how to keep my family active despite spending more time indoors. Normally, this time of year would be spent at dance and gymnastics lessons, meeting up with friends for games and field trips, and long afternoon playdates where we can all let off a little steam. Instead, we find ourselves inside more often than ever before—and facing down a long winter of a lot more of the same.

I started to search for an outlet that would get my girls moving safely while we social distance, but at first I didn't find a lot of solutions. Online videos either weren't terribly engaging for my active kids, or the messaging wasn't as positive around the power of movement as I would like. Then I found the Nike PLAYlist.

I always knew that Nike could get me moving, but I was so impressed to discover this simple resource for parents. PLAYlist is an episodic sports show on YouTube that's made for kids and designed to teach them the power of expressing themselves through movement. The enthusiastic kid hosts immediately captured my daughter's attention, and I love how the physical activity is organically incorporated in fun activities without ever being specifically called out as anything other than play. For example, this segment where the kids turn yoga into a game of Paper Scissors Rock? Totally genius. The challenges from #TheReplays even get my husband and me moving more when our daughter turns it into a friendly family competition. (Plus, I love the play-inspired sportswear made just for kids!)

My daughter loves the simple Shake Ups at the beginning of the episode and is usually hopping off the couch to jump, dance and play within seconds. One of her favorites is this Sock Flinger Shake Up activity from the Nike PLAYlist that's easy for me to get in on too. Even after we've put away the tablet, the show inspires her to create her own challenges throughout the day.

The best part? The episodes are all under 5 minutes, so they're easy to sprinkle throughout the day whenever we need to work out some wiggles (without adding a lot of screen time to our schedule).

Whether you're looking for simple alternatives to P.E. and sports or simply need fun ways to help your child burn off energy after a day of socially distanced school, Nike's PLAYlist is a fun, kid-friendly way to get everyone moving.

Need more movement inspiration for fall? Here are 5 ways my family is getting up and getting active this season:

1. Go apple picking.

Truly, it doesn't really feel like fall until we've picked our first apple. (Or had our first bite of apple cider donut!) Need to burn off that extra cinnamon-sugar energy? Declare a quick relay race up the orchard aisle—winner gets first to pick of apples at home.

To wear: These Printed Training Tights are perfect for when even a casual walk turns into a race (and they help my daughter scurry up a branch for the big apples).

2. Visit a pumpkin patch.

We love to pick up a few locally grown pumpkins to decorate or cook with each year. Challenge your child to a "strongman" contest and see who can lift the heaviest pumpkin while you're there.

To wear: Suit up your little one in comfort with this Baby Full Zip Coverall so you're ready for whatever adventures the day brings.

3. Have a nature scavenger hunt.

Scavenger hunts are one of my favorite ways to keep my daughter preoccupied all year long. We love to get outside and search for acorns, leaves and pinecones as part of our homeschool, but it's also just a great way to get her exercising those gross motor skills whenever the wiggles start to build up.

To wear: It's not truly fall until you break out a hoodie. This cozy Therma Elite Kids Hoodie features a mesh overlay to release heat while your child plays.

4. Have a touch-football game.

Tip for parents with very little kids: It doesn't have to last as long as a real football game. 😂 In fact, staging our own mini-games is one of our favorite ways to get everyone up and moving in between quarters during Sunday football, and I promise we all sleep better that night.

To wear: From impromptu games of tag to running through our favorite trails, these kids' Nike Air Zoom Speed running shoes are made to cover ground all season long.

5. Create an indoor obstacle course.

Pretending the floor is lava was just the beginning. See how elaborate your personal course can get, from jumping on the couch to rolling under the coffee table to hopping down the hallway on one foot.

To wear: These ready-for-any-activity Dri-FIT Tempo Shorts are perfect for crawling, hopping and racing—and cuddling up when it's time to rest.

This article was sponsored by Nike. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

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