Safer Sleep Week: The dangers to watch out for – from a mum who lost her baby

As research shows nearly half of new parents let their baby sleep unsafely, Lisa Salmon warns against the risks that led to the death of her child.

New research released for Safer Sleep Week  (March 9-15) has revealed nearly half (46%) of new parents have put their baby in an unsafe sleeping environment in order to get them to sleep for longer – and by doing so have greatly increased the risk of losing their baby to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The Lullaby Trust research found one of the risks parents admitted to was unsafe co-sleeping, such as a parent sleeping with their baby on their chest, on a sofa or armchair, or when they’re very tired.

Such co-sleeping practices may not sound particularly risky – but devastating  personal experience showed me how incredibly dangerous they are. I fell asleep with my one-day-old baby Conor beside me, and woke to find him dead.

I didn’t mean to fall asleep with him – something told me it wasn’t a good idea – but I was in hospital with him after his birth and a midwife told me to lie down to breastfeed him in the middle of the night.

I was exhausted after a long labour, and on medication for an infection. Add to that the fact that breastfeeding is soporific – it makes you sleepy – and it was almost inevitable that I’d drop off in that narrow hospital bed with my newborn against my chest. When I awoke around 40 minutes later, I could get no response from him – he’d stopped breathing and was blue.

Doctors managed to restart his tiny heart and put him on life-support, but later that day my partner and I were told his brain had been starved of oxygen for too long and he couldn’t breathe unaided. Hours later they switched his life-support off, and he died in our arms at just two days old.

Losing him was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced – and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t fallen asleep with him beside me.

Clearly from the Lullaby Trust research, I’m not the only one who, whether aware of the risks or not, has co-slept with their baby and put them in danger.

My baby and I were desperately unlucky, but we’re definitely not the only ones. The Lullaby Trust says, for example, that an adult falling asleep on a sofa or armchair with a baby increases the risk of SIDS by up to 50 times. It really is not a risk worth taking.

SIDS is defined as the sudden and unexplained death of an infant where no cause is found after a post-mortem examination. It’s not yet known what causes it, although it’s likely that a combination of factors affect babies at a vulnerable stage of their development, leading to their sudden death.

But parents can significantly reduce the chance of SIDS by following this advice.

Place your baby on their back to sleep

The survey found a third of parents put their baby on their front or side to sleep. Yet sleeping a baby on their back is one of the most important ways to reduce the risk of SIDS. The Lullaby Trust says since this measure was publicised through their Back to Sleep campaign in 1992, the rate of SIDS deaths has dropped by 82%.

Put your baby to sleep in a separate cot or Moses basket in the same room as you for the first six months

“If you choose to share a bed with your baby there are some key risks you should avoid,” warns Lullaby Trust chief executive Jenny Ward. “It’s dangerous to share a bed with your baby if you smoke, have drunk alcohol or taken drugs that make you sleepy, are extremely tired or if your baby was premature or of a low birth weight. In these scenarios we would advise putting your baby in their own sleep space such as a cot or Moses basket.

Avoid letting your baby get too hot and watch out for obstructions 

“We recommend making the bed a safer place, in case you doze off accidentally, by keeping pillows and adult bedding – or any items that could obstruct their breathing or cause them to overheat – away from your baby, and ensuring your baby can’t get trapped between the mattress and the wall,” says Ward.

Also make sure you aren’t covering your baby’s face or head while sleeping.

Don’t sleep on a sofa or chair with your baby

It’s thought the risk of suffocation, or becoming trapped, is much greater on a sofa or armchair than in a bed. “Never sleep on a sofa or armchair with your baby as this can increase the risk of SIDS by 50 times,” warns Ward.

Breastfeed or combination feed your baby

Partial or combination feeding (breast milk and formula) and exclusive breastfeeding have all been associated with lower SIDS rates – with some studies backing it up.

Research from the University of Virginia found that mothers don’t need to breastfeed exclusively for their baby to get the benefit, and say it’s unclear why even partial breastfeeding protects against SIDS. The theory is that it’s connected to immune benefits and the effect on the baby’s sleeping patterns.

“Breastfeeding for at least two months halves the risk of SIDS, but the longer you can continue, the more protection it will give your baby,” Ward says.

But she adds: “Thankfully SIDS is now very rare. If you bottle feed your baby and follow all the other pieces of safer sleep advice, then the chance of SIDS is extremely low.”

Use a firm, flat, waterproof mattress in good condition

You should use a firm and flat mattress protected by a wipeable waterproof cover, which will help keep the mattress clean and dry. It’s thought soft mattresses  can create an indentation leading to the risk of suffocation if a baby rolls over.

“It’s important the mattress a baby sleeps on is firm, flat with no raised or cushioned areas and has a waterproof cover,” says Ward.

Safer sleep advice is especially important for premature babies or those of low birth weight, as these babies are at a higher risk of SIDS.