SIDS Awareness & Safer Co-Sleeping
One of the most enduring memories of my pregnancy with my eldest son was sitting in a hospital asking a mother about the circumstances surrounding the death of her newborn baby daughter. As a police officer within a specialist unit, it was my job to gather the facts necessary for the investigation that always happens when a baby dies suddenly and unexpectedly.
I don’t talk much about my pre-motherhood career. Aside from the eclipsing of pre-parenthood life by your new ‘mummy’ job title, let’s face it, it’s the ultimate conversation killer. Nobody wants to talk about children coming to harm or dying... but here’s the thing, we do need to talk about SIDS. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or ‘cot death’ is the sudden, unexpected & unexplained death of a baby*. As you’d expect with deaths that are unexplained, no precise cause of SIDS is known but it’s believed to be caused by a combination of factors. Certainly, there are a number of things you can do to make things safer for your baby and reduce the likelihood of it happening, although sometimes parents do absolutely everything right and still experience the tragic loss of a much loved little one.
I remember hoping, as I sat with that mother, that my baby bump wasn’t distinguishable from one caused by excessive cake consumption. I couldn’t bear the thought of causing her any more pain than she was already enduring. I also remember being terrified. In the UK, more than 200 babies die suddenly and unexpectedly every year* yet as a fraction of those born it’s rare. For me, as a result of my work, it was uncomfortably real. My first pregnancy ended in miscarriage and my anxiety about losing this new baby at any point was a constant weight. When he, much to our joy and relief, crashed into the world, the SIDS prevention guidelines were etched at the forefront of my mind.
We’d done our research and bought a beautiful ‘pod’ that attached to our bed with a screen between us to keep him safe from duvets, stray arms and other safety hazards. We knew he’d be in our room with us for the first year anyway - I couldn’t imagine him being any further away when he was so little - so that box was also ticked. His pod was free of cot bumpers, soft toys and comforters, and we used those special baby sleeping bags so there was no risk from blankets. We’d created a little night-time safe haven...
There was just one little (rather noisy) problem. Our beautiful new red-headed bundle of joy wouldn’t even entertain the idea of sleeping in his perfect pod, or anywhere else for that matter that wasn’t me. It didn’t matter how deeply asleep he seemed to be in my arms, the second he came into contact with that safe, clean, carefully thought out pod he woke screaming.
If you’re not already familiar with ‘The 4th Trimester’ I really recommend having a quick read about it. Essentially my newborn baby knew nothing of the new world he’d been rather rudely dragged into and only had me as a familiar frame of reference. He wanted, needed and jolly well expected to be in contact with me at all times and no amount of snazzy sleep pods or well-researched safety advice was going to change his mind.
Babywearing got us through the days and helped me transition from a panicked, exhausted new parent to, well, to one that occasionally got to eat and go to the loo. More than that, the wraps that he spent most of his early life in were instrumental in forging a bond and an understanding between us. Through carrying his little body against mine I learned to know when he was hungry or uncomfortable from the slightest wiggle or shift in position. I could feed him before he needed to cry for it and knew when his nappy needed changing before leakages or smells. We were as in tune as was possible in the haze of those exhausting, overwhelming, wonderful days... but it all went pear-shaped at night.
The SIDS prevention advice was clear - “do not sleep on a bed, sofa or armchair with your baby” - so we persevered with seemingly endless, completely sleepless nights that flew in the face of all my motherly instincts. Our little man couldn’t understand why I wanted to put him down at night and, unsurprisingly, attempts to reason with him and explain that I was in fact only a short distance away on the other side of the pod screen did nothing to change his mind. When I reached the point of forgetting my own name, we realised that bed-sharing was going to happen whether I liked it or not. I just needed to ensure it happened as safely as possible. If you’re not familiar with the terminology, Wikipedia states that “co-sleeping is a a practice in which babies and young children sleep close to one or both parents, as opposed to in a separate room”. It’s often used to refer to ‘bed-sharing’, which specifically relates to sleeping in the same bed as your little one.
I knew from my work that some factors seemed more common than others in cases of SIDS, but it was hard to find hard data showing the impact of variables like recreational drug or alcohol use, smoking or falling asleep on couches, on the SIDS statistics. I felt too guilty to ask my midwife or health visitor for advice on safer co-sleeping & ‘bed-sharing’ as all they’d ever said was “don’t do it”, so I was forced to do my own research.
I knew that premature or small babies are more vulnerable to SIDS and so sharing a bed with them is far more dangerous. Luckily for me, at 10lb 8.5oz and over 42 weeks gestation we certainly didn’t fall into those categories! Neither my husband nor I smoke, take medication that might affect our sleep, or use recreational drugs so we were good on that front, and I breastfed, which also reduces the risk of SIDS.
Over time we perfected the ‘art’ of co-sleeping and found ways to make it work better. For us this meant things like investing in thermal pyjamas for the grownups so we didn’t freeze without the duvet, or finding a nightlight that was just bright enough to see by, but not to convince our nocturnal little sleep-stealer it was daytime. Daddy was issued with a futon for those nights when either he required more than 10% of his mental capacity for the working day ahead, or for when snoring was an unwelcome serenade in the early hours!
Co-sleeping in the form of bed-sharing was certainly not a perfect solution to our sleep issues but it did mean that we all actually slept at points throughout the night which was a game changer in those early days. Crucially, I felt I was meeting my new baby’s needs in a way that keeping us separated at night had prevented.
To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying you should co-sleep or bed-share and I’m certainly not suggesting you disregard the SIDS awareness recommendations. My message is this: if you (or as in our case your little one!) decide that bed-sharing is right and necessary for your family, you should be fully informed and empowered to do it as safely as possible.
When we moved to the West Country and had our second son I was heartened to find that the midwives in our new area provided advice on safer co-sleeping, but know that this isn’t consistently the case nationwide. If you find yourself without the information you need, there are some useful links to the Unicef, NHS and Lullaby Trust pages at the bottom of this article along with a copied & pasted list of the safer co-sleeping guidelines. In the meantime, I wish you all a safe and settled night’s sleep however it works for you ... I think that’s my youngest waking now...
If you’ve been affected by SIDS, The Lullaby Trust provides advice and support for bereaved families.
Co-Sleeping Guidance from The Lullaby Trust:
Our co-sleeping advice
Babies should be slept in a clear sleep space, which is easy to create in a cot or Moses basket. We know however that families also bed share, and so recommend making your bed a safer place for baby whether you doze off accidentally, or choose to bed share. Our advice on co-sleeping with your baby will tell you how. For safer co-sleeping:
•Keep pillows, sheets, blankets away from your baby or any other items that could obstruct your baby’s breathing or cause them to overheat. A high proportion of infants who die as a result of SIDS are found with their head covered by loose bedding.
•Follow all of our other safer sleep advice to reduce the risk of SIDS such as sleeping baby on their back
•Avoid letting pets or other children in the bed
•Make sure baby won’t fall out of bed or get trapped between the mattress and the wall
When not to co-sleep
It is important for you to know that there are some circumstances in which co-sleeping with your baby can be very dangerous:
•Either you or your partner smokes (even if you do not smoke in the bedroom)
•Either you or your partner has drunk alcohol or taken drugs (including medications that may make you drowsy)
•You are extremely tired
•Your baby was born premature (37 weeks or less)
•Your baby was born at a low weight (2.5kg or 5½ lbs or less)
•Never sleep on a sofa or armchair with your baby, this can increase the risk of SIDS by 50 times
You should never sleep together with your baby if any of the above points apply to you or your partner.