Of course, none of us are fans of this or any other fatal syndrome. But I particularly hate SIDS because there’s apparently no known cause – so that, unlike something like ringworm that you can avoid by not walking in mud barefoot, or pregnancy that you can avoid through abstinence, there isn’t anything you can do to 100% prevent it.
Suffocation or SIDS?
You can, supposedly, do some things to lower your risk – which is frustrating, because it’s all about statistics and nothing about clear lines of cause and effect. Most of the measures the medical professionals advise a parent to take seem to be about preventing suffocation – but if SIDS is really just suffocation, then why is it called SIDS? Why aren’t we just calling it suffocation?
When told “Make sure your baby’s head remains uncovered during sleep,” well, that sounds like suffocation prevention to me… So which is it???
Back to Back and Back Again
Then there’s the whole thing about ‘back is best’ – putting babies to sleep on their backs, as 5 of 6 infants found dead are sleeping on their stomachs.
The First Candle website, dedicated to SIDS prevention, says this:
What happens when my baby begins to roll over? Eventually your baby will want to determine his or her own sleep position and may begin rolling to their tummy during sleep. Experts say this is normal, and parents should not disrupt everyone’s much needed rest by continually flipping them back. If your baby is determined to sleep on his or her tummy, take extra care to ensure that there is nothing in the sleep area they can get their face next to and try and relax, knowing that you’ve done everything you can to protect them!
That’s nice to tell me to relax, except that also being told that most babies who die of SIDS are found on their tummies suggests that it actually WOULD be helpful to stay up all night flipping my overactive pancake of a child…if that would prevent her from dying, I’m happy to disrupt my rest… But most doctors and advice books echo this nonchalant sentiment, and I frankly don’t understand: If putting the baby on her back is such a cure-all, then why the flippancy when she starts flipping off of it?
The other source of conflicting information has to do with cosleeping. The official line is that having an infant in the parents’ bed puts the child at risk of being smothered by pillows, blankets, and parents alike. Again, this is not SIDS, but suffocation – so talk to me about SIDS, not smothering. When my first child was about four months old, I picked up the book Our Babies, Ourselves at the library and read the author’s contention that SIDS is nicknamed ‘crib death’ for a reason – it occurs in cribs – and that this is something the crib industry (I didn’t know there was such a thing) tries to keep the public from knowing. She cites the stats for SIDS deaths vs. deaths in an adult bed, and the gap is huge – reports that break the numbers down do make seem to back up her argument. I mean, compare 13 deaths in an adult bed in a year vs. around 2,500 SIDS deaths in cribs… which would you go for?
A new mother of a four month old, I was conflicted, confused, and scared – how could I prevent my baby from being smothered AND from SIDS – and who was telling me the right piece of information and was suffocation separate from SIDS or the same? (Maybe this is the real reason parents don’t sleep the first year – not the baby’s fault at all… maybe a conspiracy by some other industry? The crack industry? The divorce industry? Psychotherapists?)
The sad fact is that it seems like most infants who die of SIDS have brain, heart, or other abnormalities that collude with environmental components to prevent them from surviving. And there really isn’t any way to discover those in any measured, thorough way at this time. We can keep our babies in smoke-free, bedding-clear spaces; we can reduce our caffeine and alcohol and other factors that might inhibit their development or our reactivity; and we can strap them down on their backs (not really), but in the end, the mystery remains at large.
And, as one doctor infers, being a parent means the risk of losing your child is eternal (though his tone comes off to me a bit condescending – like, yes, it’s sad, people, but move on – argghh). Learning to deal with uncertainty and worry only starts when they are infants – it certainly doesn’t end when the SIDS risk disappears.
Which means that as much as I hate SIDS, having to live with it without absolutely losing my mind the first year of my daughter’s life taught me a lot about what it means to be a parent – to be a person – and for that I am grateful. Life is not about survival, really. None of us survives life. However long a life is, what matters is our celebration and love for the gift of it.