Myths about baby sleep and SIDS, debunked by an expert


Story highlights

Baby sleep is best if you play loud, rumbly white noise during all naps and nights

An unswaddled baby can roll to an unsafe position more easily than a swaddled one

Dr. Harvey Karp, author of “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” will be taking your baby and parenthood questions on the CNN Parenting Facebook page live at 11 a.m. ET Monday, October 30.

CNN —  

We need more training to get a driver’s license than to become a parent, in our culture. Even though we would benefit from parental education, some of us have never even held a newborn before having one of our own. And we often rely on advice from friends and family, much of it outdated or just plain wrong.

When it comes to baby sleep, bad advice can be dangerous. October is Safe Sleep Awareness month, an opportunity to learn more about sudden unexpected infant death and debunk the myths about what is sabotaging your sleep and highlight habits that potentially risk your baby’s safety.

Myth 1: Your baby sleeps best in a silent room.

Not true. In fact, total silence can make it hard for your baby to doze off. Remember, the womb is noisy: louder than a vacuum cleaner and running 24 hours a day. For nine months, your little one’s been lulled to sleep by the rhythmic whooshing of the blood flowing through the placenta. To her, the quiet of the average home is jarring. Plus, in a silent room, she’s more likely to wake up when a loud truck on the street or any other bump in the night breaks that silence. The truth is, your baby will sleep best if you play loud, rumbly white noise during all naps and nights.

Myth 2: You should never wake a sleeping baby.

Nope. You should always wake your sleeping baby using a little technique called “wake and sleep.” It gently teaches your child the important skill of self-soothing. Here’s briefly how it works: Starting as early as the first day of life, wake him up the tiniest bit after sliding him into bed. Just tickle his neck or feet until his eyes drowsily open. Very soon after, he’ll drift right back into slumberland. In those few semi-awake seconds, he’s just soothed himself back to sleep – the first step toward sleeping through the night.

Myth 3: Some babies sleep worse when swaddled because they want to be free.

Not really. Your baby may fuss and resist swaddling at first, so it may look like she hates it. But babies don’t need freedom, they need the feeling of security they had in the womb. Without wrapping, your infant will flail her arms, whack herself in the face and startle easily throughout the night. That’s a recipe for poor sleep.

Swaddling is the first step to calming, and it’s important you don’t stop there, especially if your infant’s been fighting it. To help her settle, you’ll want to layer in other womb-mimicking steps: “shushing,” side/stomach position, swinging and sucking, which, along with swaddling, make up the 5 S’s of setting up a baby for sleep success. And once the S’s become part of your sleep routine, she’ll give up her battle! (Note: Side/stomach position is for calming only, never for sleep.)

Myth 4: We should teach babies to sleep in their own rooms.

Having our babies grow up to be independent takes a long time. There’s no need to rush it. In fact, having your new child sleep in another room is inconvenient (for feedings and diaper changes) and possibly dangerous. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the parent’s room for at least six months (always on their back, in their own bed). The simple practice has shown to significantly reduce the rate of sudden infant death syndrome.

Myth 5: Swaddling should be stopped after two months.

Swaddling reduces crying and increases sleep. But new research shows that swaddled babies who roll to the stomach have double the risk of SIDS compared with an unswaddled baby rolling over. As a result, the pediatrics academy is now recommending that parents stop baby-wrapping at 2 months. On the face of it, the group’s new advice seems to make sense, but it completely ignores the risks of not swaddling.

In an eight-year review of data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, only 22 sudden unexplained infant deaths related to swaddling were reported; almost 50% were in sleep sacks (a wearable blanket), and 90% were found on the stomach and/or with bulky bedding. (Note: Fatalities categorized as sudden unexplained infant death include sleep deaths from accidental suffocation, strangulation and SIDS.)

During those eight years, hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of babies were swaddled. Since sudden unexplained infant death strikes one in 1,200 babies, one would have expected hundreds or perhaps thousands of swaddle-related deaths over this period if wrapping caused these deaths. Of note, during the same eight years, 1,026 deaths related to sofa sleeping were reported to the safety commission.

The point is, though swaddling may introduce a theoretical risk, there is not a lot of proof it is causing a true increase in sudden unexplained infant death. On the other hand, swaddling has been shown to reduce infant crying and boost sleep. That is of critical importance because the stress provoked by persistent fussing and parental exhaustion is a potent trigger for postpartum depression, child abuse, car accidents and even risky sleeping practices, which are associated with up to 70% of all infant sleep fatalities.

We don’t want babies rolling over swaddled, but we also don’t want them rolling over unswaddled during the 2- to 4-month-old peak period for SIDS. An unswaddled baby can roll to an unsafe position more easily than one whose movement is restricted by snug swaddling. And, since swaddling improves sleep, unwrapped babies wake more often and are more likely to tempt their tired parents to fall asleep with them in their beds.