It's a parent's worst nightmare. Unfortunately, many parents can't seem to wake up from this bad dream. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) claims the lives of 3,000 babies under the age of 1 every year in the United States.
Also known as crib death, SIDS occurs while a baby is sleeping and it strikes without warning.
Medical researchers still do not know what causes SIDS, and they say this disorder includes any unexplained infant death after all known causes are ruled out through autopsy, medical history and death scene investigation.
Aynsley Anderson, a nurse and childbirth educator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, says SIDS often happens to children who are 1 month to 4 months old.
Unfortunately, Anderson has seen the impact SIDS has on families.
"There's a lot of guilt involved, and parents need to be reassured that it was, in most cases, nothing they did," she said. "It is one of those unfortunate things that can happen."
Shawna Haynes, mother of a 22-month old baby boy, says it wasn't long ago when she spent many sleepless nights making sure her baby was breathing.
"It's always something I thought of, even in pregnancy," she said. "It's always that hidden fear when he was born. I woke up several times just to make sure he was breathing."
Many parents can relate to these fears. Anderson hopes to calm those anxieties by educating parents about the precautions they can take to help reduce the risk of SIDS.
What parents can do
She says one of the most important steps is to always place a baby on his or her back to sleep, even during naptime.
Studies show the incidence of SIDS decreased by 40 percent between 1992 and 1997, thanks to a popular campaign called "Back to Sleep."
"We know that back sleeping can greatly decrease the risk of SIDS," she said.
Another important step is to stop smoking during pregnancy, and maintain a smoke-free home for your baby. Anderson says a baby who is exposed to smoke is twice as likely to die from SIDS.
She also says that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome increases during the fall and winter.
That's because parents tend to overheat their babies with blankets, comforters and clothes. Anderson recommends keeping the baby's room between 68 F and 70 F, and removing all soft bedding, including stuffed animals, from the baby's crib.
"Basically, babies should be placed to sleep on a good-fitting sheet that's not going to come out from under the mattress on a firm-fitting mattress in a safe crib," Anderson said. "Preferably, with no blankets."
She said if parents must use a blanket, it should be a light, thin blanket that only comes to the baby's chest.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 64 infant deaths occurred in 1999 due to crib bedding.
Anderson also suggest an infant CPR course for all parents and caregivers. She said it could be the difference between life and death for the baby.
"There have been several cases where babies have had what we call near miss SIDS incidences where it's happened right before the parents eyes and they've resuscitated the baby," she said. "That's why it's vital that all parents know how to do CPR."
Moreover, she says anyone who is baby-sitting should know the importance of back sleeping. Many times, SIDS happens when a baby sitter or well-intentioned relative puts the baby down to sleep on his or her stomach.
Anderson says, "If your child is going to be looked after, in child care, by grandparents, by anybody who may not be up on the latest recommendations, just stress how important it is that the baby sleep on their back."
Also, keep in mind that worrying about SIDS is not uncommon. Haynes knows the feeling all too well. She recalls her son's younger days. "It was scary, even though he was healthy," she said.
Haynes felt she could breathe a sigh of relief, as many parents do, after her baby passed a SIDS milestone and turned 1 year old.