SIDS vs. Suffocation: Helping Your Baby Sleep Safely

Ask an expectant or new parent what SIDS is and the overwhelming majority will sadly know that it means the sudden death of a baby before turning the age of one. It’s the worst possible thing. It’s not anyone’s fault. And it’s as devastating as it is inexplicable.
But did you know that, while SIDS remains unexplained, some causes of infant death are both explicable and preventable? Too many people confuse SIDS with accidental suffocation. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 3,500 infants (under 12 months) died in the United States in 2018, the last year for which there are statistics. Some of those deaths (about 1,300, again according to CDC stats) are attributable to SIDS. But some were caused by accidental suffocation, often traced to unsafe sleeping environments.
As October is SIDS Awareness Month, we thought we’d offer a refresher on what poses a danger, what doesn’t, and what you need to know:



Is defined as the sudden death of an infant under 1 year of age that, even after a thorough investigation (an examination of the spot the tragedy occurred, the baby’s medical history, and possibly an autopsy), has no other definition. Basically, SIDS is what experts call a “diagnosis of exclusion.” It’s not anything else, so it must be this. In their grief, some SIDS parents may understandably blame themselves or reach for reasons why it may have happened. Rest assured that, according to the National Institutes of Health, SIDS is not triggered by vaccines, nor is it a result of neglect or abuse.

Accidental suffocation

Is what it sounds like: Something went wrong in how a baby was put down for sleep or a nap, leading to tragedy. There are several ways it can occur:

- Another person with whom the baby is sleeping rolls on top of the infant without knowing it
- The baby becomes wedged between objects, such as couch cushions or the mattress and bed frame or wall
- Pillows or bedding cover the baby’s nose and mouth
- The baby is strangulated between crib rails or by a window-blind cord
- An infant is put to sleep face-down and becomes smothered
These deaths have one very important component that distinguishes them from SIDS: They are all preventable.

How to Keep Your Baby Safe

What constitutes the safest-possible baby sleep environment changes from generation to generation (and some aspects of baby sleep are cultural, such as co-sleeping). But the American Academy of Pediatrics, in addition to the CDC, has some basic guidelines to help avoid the worst outcome and allow everyone to sleep easier:

- Always put your baby to sleep on his back, including for nap time or when he’s being cared for at a place other than at home (such as grandparents’ homes or daycare).
- Be sure your baby’s crib (or other sleep area, such as a bassinet, baby box, play yard, etc.) has a firm mattress. Use only bedding designated for that mattress, and be sure it fits snugly.
- Keep baby’s sleep environment free of blankets, pillows, bumpers, bolsters, and stuffed animals.
- Skip sleep positioners. The FDA recently warned that these devices (designed to prop infants to relieve reflux) pose a potential suffocation risk.
- Never let your baby nap or sleep on a couch or chair, where she may become wedged in cushions or roll off.
- Have your baby sleep in your room, but not with you, such as in a bassinet, baby box, crib, or co-sleeper attached to your bed.
- Be sure your home and any other place your baby spends time is a smoke-free environment. Babies who live in homes with smokers develop a higher risk of getting SIDS.
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