According to the CDC, about 3,400 babies in the U.S. die unexpectedly each year from sleep-related deaths, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). In recognition of October being Safe Sleep & SIDS Awareness Month, we spoke with Dr. David Rzeszutko, vice president of medical and clinical operations for Priority Health, for safe sleep tips and more.
Dr. Rzeszutko, who is also a licensed physician board certified in internal medicine and pediatrics, shared that despite decreases in rates of SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths, the CDC says more than one-third of sudden unexpected infant deaths that occur in the U.S. each year are from SIDS. In addition, a pediatrics study by the CDC found that using soft bedding was associated with 16 times the risk of explained suffocation, compared with no soft bedding use.
According to Dr. Rzeszutko, there are several best practices when it comes to safe sleep for babies.
"The first is to remember the saying, 'back is best,'" he said. "This means placing your baby on their back on a firm, flat mattress with a tightly fitted sheet, both for naps and at night. Even if a baby spits up during sleep, their gag reflex helps prevent them from choking while sleeping on their backs. Avoid placing a baby on their side to sleep due to the risk of rolling over."
Dr. Rzeszutko also emphasized the importance of keeping a baby's sleep space free of clutter, meaning no pillows, blankets or stuffed animals.
"It can be tempting to use a blanket because you want to keep your baby warm, but sleep sacks are the better and safer alternative," he said. "Babies should be lightly clothed for sleep and the bedroom temperature should be comfortable for a lightly clothed adult."
You should also keep your baby where you can see and hear them. While this could include your own bedroom, it should not include your own bed.
"According to the CDC, sharing a room with your baby is much safer than bed sharing and may decrease the risk of SIDS by as much as 50%," Dr. Rzeszutko explained. "The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also advises no bed sharing because the surface and bedding adults typically use are not appropriate for infants. It's also a good idea to share safe sleep tips with a caregiver or anyone looking after your baby."
It's important to note other common practices that don't land under the safe sleep category.
"Weighted products like weighted sleep sacks, swaddles and blankets are not safe for infants. Stores sell them, but it's not recommended by the AAP," Dr. Rzeszutko said, noting parents pay attention to sleep-related product recalls and avoid products and devices that go against safe sleep guidance. "Many wedges, positioners and other products that claim to keep babies in one position to reduce reflux and suffocation do not meet federal guidelines for sleep safety. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is a helpful resource."
Sleep safety has evolved over time, especially in recent years.
"A big advancement in safe sleep education was the national awareness campaign to put babies to sleep on their backs that took place in the '90s," Dr. Rzeszutko shared, adding that though the campaign resulted in a considerable decline in these tragic deaths, more work needs to be done. "The rate of SIDS in Black and American Indian infants is higher in communities across the U.S. It's important to address the racial and ethnic disparities that exist throughout the country, and for parents and pediatricians to work together to have conversations about safe sleep and ways to keep children safe and healthy."
Priority Health is among those looking to elevate awareness around safe sleep practices. Since 2020, they've partnered with diaper banks across Michigan to provide hundreds of thousands of diapers to families in need and have assisted more than 1,000 families at drives throughout Metro Detroit and West Michigan in 2023.
"The Maternal and Infant Health Program at Priority Health, offered in collaboration with the Michigan Department and Human and Health Services, is a free program before, during and after pregnancy to help mothers have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby," Dr. Rzeszutko said. "The program is free for Priority Health Medicaid members and provides regular in-home visits by a nurse or community health worker."
There's also PriorityMOM™, Priority Health's maternity management program that launched in 2021 which walks expectant mothers through their pregnancy, offering personalized support and education on topics like safe sleep, infant feeding and mental health awareness for new moms.
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.
Headshot Photo Courtesy of Priority Health.