Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is a parent’s worst nightmare. SIDS is the sudden and unexplained death of an infant under 12 months old that typically occurs while the child is sleeping. Unfortunately, this tragedy happens over 1,500 times each year in the United States, and an unsafe sleeping environment seems to be a contributing factor.

“Parents are focused on so many things when they have a newborn, it can be hard to prioritize,” said Geisinger pediatrician Fernando S. Carlos, M.D. “However, one of the most important things parents can do is provide a safe sleeping environment to reduce their risk for SIDS.”

Understanding SIDS: The Triple-Risk Model

While doctors don’t completely understand why SIDS happens, three conditions likely put infants at greater risk. This is called the Triple-Risk Model, and includes:

  • A vulnerable infant: Some babies have abnormalities in their brains that affect respiration and heart rate. This makes them more vulnerable to SIDS.

  • Critical developmental period: During the first six months of life, babies undergo rapid changes and growth. Some of these changes may temporarily destabilize their internal systems. Ninety percent of SIDS deaths occur in the first six months.

  • Outside stressors: These are problems in the environment around the baby that may put them at greater risk if they are already vulnerable and in the critical developmental period.

“Parents have no control over their newborn’s vulnerability or developmental period,” said Dr. Carlos. “They do have the ability to reduce potential outside stressors – like an unsafe sleeping environment – which can make the different between life and death.”

Reducing the risks for SIDS

As a parent, you can help provide your baby with a safer sleeping environment to reduce their risks:

  • Put babies to sleep on their backs: Babies are at much greater risk for SIDS when they sleep on their stomachs and their sides. Stomach- and side-sleeping put your baby’s face closer to the mattress, which increases their risk for smothering. Don’t worry about potential choking hazards for babies sleeping on their backs, as they will swallow or cough up any fluids naturally. Also advise grandparents and babysitters always to put babies on their backs when sleeping, both for naps and at night.

  • Do not put loose items in their cribs: Do not include any loose bedding, like pillows, blankets or bumpers, in the crib with infants. They should have a firm mattress with a fitted sheet and nothing else. Save the stuffed animals and toys for playtime.

  • Do not sleep with your baby: Having your baby sleep in the same room with you can lower their risk for SIDS, but they should never sleep in your bed. They should always sleep in a crib or bassinet. It is especially important to keep babies out of your bed if you are tired, have consumed alcohol or are taking medications that make you sleepy; it’s way too easy for you to accidentally roll over and “trap” your child.

Other strategies that can help

There are other strategies in addition to providing a safe sleeping environment that can help reduce your infant’s risk for SIDS.

“If you smoke, quit. Babies born to women who smoked during pregnancy are three times more likely to die from SIDS,” said Dr. Carlos. “Breathing secondhand smoke also increases an infant’s risk.”

It’s also important to immunize your baby, as infants who receive all recommended immunizations have a 50 percent reduced risk of SIDS. And finally, breastfeed as long as you can, which also helps reduce their risks.