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Beware the Sleep Safety Gap! New Moms Are Making Critical Mistakes When It Comes to Baby Sleep

02/20/2014 09:21 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2014
Elisabeth Schmitt via Getty Images

Sleep. It's the thing new moms crave more than a long, hot shower. Certainly more than they crave sex. But a good night's sleep is elusive when there's a baby in the house. From the moment your first child is born, your ability to rest is intertwined with that of another creature -- one who doesn't initially know day from night, who eats at all hours and who can't seem to doze off without being held in your arms.

It can be hard to put that baby down. Mixed with the love hormone that rushes through a new mom's body is fear. More than three out of four moms (78%) worry about sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS, according to a new American Baby magazine poll of more than 4,500 moms of infants age 1 or younger. (Our partner in the survey was Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization devoted to preventing childhood injuries; I sit on the SKW board.)

Researchers have elevated the science of infant sleep safety to an impressive level. Infant-product manufacturers have also done their part. There are wireless video baby monitors that upload to the Internet, even a new "smart" infant bodysuit that will send info on your baby's breathing to your phone.

The basics of safe sleep remain remarkably low-tech, however, and in our survey, a whopping 96% of moms knew exactly what they should do: Put Baby down alone, in an empty crib, on his back, a message supported by SIDS research and promoted by national health organizations for the last two decades in an effort to reduce the risk of sleep-related infant deaths.

But we are still making some very low-tech mistakes. As is true so often in life, what we know and what we actually do don't connect. Our survey found that almost three out of four moms have placed an item, such as a stuffed animal, blanket or bumper, in the crib with her baby. One in four has put her infant down to sleep on his stomach (and of those, 47 percent did so when Baby was under 3 months old, when the risk of SIDS is highest). And 65 percent of moms have slept in bed with an infant (more than a third of those moms do so regularly), a practice that raises the risk of death 40-fold when compared with crib sleeping. Sharing a couch with an infant was also remarkably common in our survey; 53 percent of moms do it.

In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, 3,610 children under age 1 died of sudden unexpected infant death, a category that includes SIDS as well as accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed. Not every death could be prevented even with current safety knowledge. There are still many mysteries surrounding the causes of SIDS. But there are scientifically documented ways to make sleeping safer for babies, and almost all moms today know what they are. Still, the urge to give Baby a stuffed toy to snuggle, or to place a blanket over him to keep him warm, or to put a pretty bumper on the crib is powerful, and too often prevails.

Getting your baby to sleep on his own -- whether in a bassinet, a co-sleeper attached to your bed or a crib in a separate room -- is the first of many tough things you will have to do as a parent. Take it from the mom of an almost-adolescent: Being able to show love and still stand firm is a skill you'll be called upon to use again and again as your child grows. Practice it now before the really tough moments crop up. Maybe knowing your baby is sleeping more safely can take the edge off and help you rest a little easier.