I can’t imagine anything worse than losing a baby to SIDS. I rank it as my top fear and consequently get very little sleep. My sleeplessness is compounded by the decision I made to allow my baby to sleep on his stomach. If you’ve read any article about SIDS then you know allowing stomach sleeping is about the worst thing you can do for your child. So how do I justify my decision?
First of all my baby simply will not sleep well on his back. Maybe some infants do. Maybe some can be easily trained but after a month of trying it just wasn’t happening for us. So I started reading a little more about why back sleeping is so forcefully recommended. I was surprised by what I found.
Even though SIDS is the leading cause of death in otherwise healthy infants (meaning it beats out accidents and homicide) the death rate is still pretty low – 1.2 in a thousand before the Back-to-Sleep campaign started in 1994 and in 2006 it was .55 in a thousand. However, if you look at the graph here you’ll see the rate was already declining before the Back to Sleep campaign.
I have some problems with the Back to Sleep campaign mainly because I’m not convinced the studies showed conclusively that back sleeping is that much of a threat. If you get past the PR messaging which is very emphatic, making it sound like tummy sleeping will make your child die in an instant, and start reading through some of the studies, you get the feeling that someone was looking for this specific conclusion and, as anyone in the PR business can tell you, if you want a specific result you can always figure out a way to get a poll or study to give it to you.
The fact that the SIDS death rate declined during the Back to Sleep campaign could also be due to the overall increased awareness of SIDS brought about by the campaign. Also, as we come to understand SIDS a little more, deaths that once would have been designated as SIDS are now designated as something else lowering the statistic further.
My point is, the majority of parents now force an unnatural sleeping position on their infants on the recommendation that it may prevent a death that is unlikely to occur anyway. However, even Back to Sleep proponents acknowledge that back sleepers have more frequent occurrences of sleep apnea and don’t reach the same slow, restorative sleep state reached by stomach sleepers. You can probably see this in your own child. Sleeping on his back, my infant twitched constantly even while swaddled and woke frequently. He never seemed to be in a restful sleep state. That all changed when I began placing him on his stomach.
So is that how we prevent SIDS? Never allow your child to fall into a deep sleep for fear they won’t wake up? You have to wonder, what are we doing to our infants by preventing them from quality sleep? Future sleep disorders? ADHD? Autism, even? I’m purely speculating, but I know I’m a mess if I don’t sleep well for too long and those first six months in a child’s life are so crucial to neurological development.
Some babies sleep great on their backs but for those parents that are struggling with this issue I think it’s important to understand that stomach sleeping doesn’t result in an automatic death sentence.
I hope more research goes into this. I worry we may regret the stringent recommendation of Back to Sleep, but until a different recommendation comes along my tummy-sleeping baby may sleep well, but I won’t.