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Officials: Safe sleep campaign has reduced number of infants who suffocate

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Keeping your baby safe while sleeping

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Tennessee health officials have some clear advice for the parents of newborns: Don't listen to your grandmother.

New research shows decades of teaching on how to put babies to sleep was wrong — leading to the deaths of hundreds of infants every year.

When a baby younger than 1 year of age dies while sleeping, with no apparent cause, the death is labeled a case of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). But doctors now believe most of those deaths are from suffocation.

"We have very few deaths in Tennessee classified as SIDS any more," said Rachel Heitmann, director of injury prevention and detection with the Tennessee Department of Health. "Most of them have some type of unsafe sleep factor involved."

The health department launched a Safe Sleep program in 2013 that now includes all 65 of Tennessee's birthing hospitals.

The campaign's message is as simple as ABC: Infants should sleep Alone, on their Backs, in Cribs.

While that may seem simple, it is also a change from the way many moms and dads were treated by their own parents, who are often a source of child-rearing advice.

"We get more pushback from grandparents," said Angie Phillips, the nurse manager for labor and delivery at Erlanger East hospital. "They say, 'When I had babies, I put them on their stomach and they were fine.' That's when we have to really educate the family and all the folks who keep the baby."

"At that time, we didn't know which way was best, but now we have the statistics," said Traci Josephsen, clinical administrator for women's services at Erlanger. "What I say to my moms is that your parents did the best they knew at the time, but now we know this is the best way to raise our children to keep them safe."

The statistics show many mysterious SIDS deaths were caused by parents rolling over on infants when they slept in the same bed, or when babies got tangled up in a blanket, under a stuffed toy in their crib, or got their heads caught in the slats of the crib.

The current advice for newborns reflects those statistics:

- Infants should sleep alone.

While it is OK for them to sleep in someone's arms in a chair or bed, the risk is the person will fall asleep (always a threat for sleep-deprived parents of newborns) and the child could fall to the floor or be suffocated.

And "alone" means no toys— no teddy bears or other stuffed animals. That was a hard lesson even for hospital nurses to learn, said Regina Lockwitz, an Erlanger nurse who is co-leader of the hospital's Safe Sleep committee.

"If you have a sick baby in the hospital, the nurse's instinct is to help the mom who can't be there all the time and to put in toys or stuffed animals or trinkets," she said. "We had to train the staff not to do that."

- Babies should sleep on their backs, ideally on a firm mattress.

That is a change from several decades ago, when sleeping on stomachs was recommended.

"I used to do this with my own child — put them on a king-sized bed in the middle," Josephsen said. But now parents are told to keep infants off couches, where they can roll off or get suffocated, or from the middle of the bed, which may be covered with pillows or comforters. Parents should follow that rule until their babies are a year old, or they start rolling over on their own.

"We say one year, but once they start rolling over, we don't expect mom to run in every time they roll over on their stomach," Josephsen said.

- Infants should sleep in a crib.

Be certain the slats are closely spaced so the baby's head can't fit through.

And don't pile a lot of blankets on the infant. Overheating can also cause death.

"It is better to have a cooler temperature than a hot temperature," Josephsen said. Instead of blankets, consider sleepers or a sleep sack. If you do swaddle them in a blanket, keep their hands out and tuck the blanket in, she advised.

While suffocation is the major cause of infant deaths during sleep, there are other factors, such as being born prematurely or having a mother who smokes, Josephsen said. Some infants may also have a genetic defect that weakens their heart.

All new parents at hospitals participating in the Safe Sleep program get a copy of a small book, "Safe Baby Safe and Snug," created by Ohio pediatrician Sam Hanke and his wife, Maura, after their 3-week-old baby died while sleeping on his dad's chest.

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at 423-757-6673, sjohnson@timesfree press.com and on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP and on Facebook, www.facebook.com/noogahealth.

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