Trust doctors’ advice, not fancy devices, to help infants sleep safely

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If you’re the parent of an infant you likely spend a lot of time thinking about sleep: How much you got last night, how long your baby will nap today, and when your baby will reach that ever-elusive milestone known as “sleeping through the night.” Devices that promise a few more hours of rest can be enticing when you’re in the throes of sleep deprivation.

As a pediatrician who talks with families daily, I hear a lot about the latest baby sleep products on the market and the claims their manufacturers make. Unfortunately, I believe that most of these devices are at best an unnecessary expense. At worst, they can place infants at risk.

For example, sleepers similar to the now-recalled Fisher-Price Rock n’ Play may help babies keep dozing, but the soft padding and sleep angle can create a dangerous environment. Co-sleepers designed for bed-sharing may be unstable, may not properly protect infants from adult pillows and bedding, and may still allow adults to roll into a baby’s sleep space. Sleep supplements are generally untested and can be unsafe for little bodies.

Monitors marketed to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) by tracking breaths, heartbeats, or oxygen levels may set off false alarms. Infants’ neurologic systems are underdeveloped, making them prone to breathing that is irregular but not concerning. What’s more, these monitors may lull parents into a false sense of security. A sensor won’t necessarily protect an infant sleeping in an unsafe situation.

The truth is that infant sleep is naturally fragmented. During the first month of life, infants often require feedings every two to four hours around-the-clock to keep their blood sugar up. Some evidence suggests that frequent night-wakings are protective and reduce the risk of SIDS. Know that while it can seem endless now, this sleepless period will pass. In the meantime, ask friends and family members to help wash bottles and make dinner so you can squeeze in a nap. Try to sleep when your baby sleeps—advice that I know is easiest to follow if you don’t have other children or a job outside the home.

Most importantly, give yourself peace of mind and keep your baby safe by trusting these American Academy of Pediatrics sleep recommendations:

• Place infants on their backs for naps and at night until they are comfortable rolling both ways on their own (back to tummy, tummy to back).

• Ensure their sleep surface is firm and flat. Infants who fall asleep in a swing, bouncer, or sling should be transferred to a firm, flat surface and placed on their backs.

• Allow infants to room-share with a parent for the first six to 12 months.

• Bring infants into an adult bed only to comfort or feed them.

• Give infants their own sleep space: a bassinet, crib, or play yard.

• Never let infants sleep on a couch or armchair.

• Keep soft objects, loose bedding, and any objects that could increase the risk of entrapment, suffocation, or strangulation out of sleep areas.

• Swaddle babies only until they show signs of rolling over (sometimes as early as 4 months old).

Other ways to reduce the risk of SIDS:

• Don’t smoke or use alcohol or drugs during pregnancy or afterward.

• Breastfeed, if possible.

• Introduce pacifiers after two to three weeks of breastfeeding well.

• Make sure babies have daily tummy time while they are awake.

• Use caution when using a product claiming to reduce the risk of SIDS.

• Don’t rely on home heart or breathing monitors to reduce the risk of SIDS.

• Avoid bedside and in-bed sleepers.

• Keep up on well-child visits and vaccinate per the recommended schedule.

If you have questions about creating a safe sleep environment for your baby, talk to your pediatrician.

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Dr. Curtis McDonald is a pediatrician at Vancouver Clinic and the father of four children. His goal as a provider is to empower moms and dads with information so that they can make the best choices for their families.

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