The American Academy of Pediatrics has clear recommendations for safe sleep. Babies should be placed on their backs in their own crib or bassinet, with no soft objects or loose bedding, and in the same room that their mother sleeps in for the first six months.
These recommendations are designed to prevent the deaths of about 3,500 babies each year who are lost to sleep-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A recent study from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment surveyed new mothers in Kansas about safe sleep practices. Over 80 percent of mothers reported their infants slept mostly on their backs, but only 57 percent reported their babies always slept alone in their own beds. Nearly a quarter of mothers reported their babies slept in different room than they slept in.
More education on safe sleep is needed, and evidence has shown that conversations with health care providers increase compliance with safe sleep recommendations and save lives. Nearly half of mothers surveyed by KDHE reported no one explained the benefits of sharing a room with their baby, for example.
Placing babies on their backs in their own cribs, however, has been recommended for decades, with many parents still not following best practice. Doing so is easier said than done. In the early morning hours, when new parents are fighting exhaustion, compliance can feel like a herculean task. Each time a baby wakes, he or she becomes more likely to be put into an unsafe sleep position.
Getting babies sleeping safely may require more than education — it might mean ensuring new parents get the support they need.
Reading further, the KDHE study points to the more broad struggles of new mothers. In the year prior to becoming pregnant, a third of mothers had not seen a doctor, and 14 percent were uninsured, with most of those women reporting insurance was too expensive. In the 12 months before the infant was born, 8.6 percent of mothers ate less than they felt they should because there was not enough money to buy food. Postpartum, more than one in 10 lacked health insurance and 10 percent did not have a postpartum checkup after giving birth.
The United States remains the only country in the developed world with no requirement that new mothers receive paid maternity leave, ensuring low-income mothers have little choice but to return to work as quickly as possible after birth.
It is easy to imagine a new mother, exhausted from the dual obligations of care-giving and making ends meet, struggling to follow safe sleep recommendations in the hours before reporting to work.
Parents need more education about how to get babies to sleep safely and the support of a social safety net to make it easier to do so.