Infants generally sleep about 18 hours per day. By the time they are 4 months old, a baby’s sleep cycles include active sleep, dream sleep as well as quiet, deep sleep. The active-sleep phase is important to the development of learning and memory. In the deep-sleep phase, human growth hormone is released, and the baby actually grows in its sleep.
Sleep is very important to infant growth as well as physical and mental development, but sleep also can be a dangerous time for babies. Accidental suffocation, which includes strangulation, was the leading type of fatal injury in 2001 among Colorado infants younger than 1.
Thankfully, parents can play a key role in creating a safe sleeping environment for babies.
■ Babies sleep safest on their backs: The stomach-down position can put pressure on the baby’s face during sleep and cause the baby to rebreathe air that does not contain enough oxygen. Sleeping on the back reduces the rate of sudden infant death syndrome, even though the cause of SIDS is not completely understood. It also reduces the rate of sudden unexpected infant deaths, for which the cause is known. Between 4 and 6 months old, when babies start rolling over during sleep, you don’t have to turn them onto their back. The important thing is to begin each sleep time on the back. When the baby is awake and being watched, time on his or her tummy is important to strengthen head, neck and shoulder muscles.
■ Sleep surfaces matter: Place the baby on a firm surface with a fitted sheet. Avoid loose bedding in a baby’s crib, and don’t put the baby to sleep on a couch or sofa.
■ A safe sleep area looks plain: There are no pillows, blankets, quilts, sheepskins, crib bumpers or stuffed animals. These objects can obstruct a baby’s breathing or trap a baby in a low-oxygen environment. Even mobiles might have small pieces that break off and fall into the crib. The best time for babies to learn by looking at visually stimulating mobiles and playing with toys is when they are awake with a caregiver nearby.
■ Avoid overheating: Because infants can’t remove their clothing when they are hot, it’s best not to bundle them up in a warm room or during hot weather.
■ Keep cords and strings out of a baby’s sleep area: If you use a pacifier, give the baby a dry pacifier without a string.
■ Keep the crib away from the wall, windows, blinds and curtains: This helps protect babies from getting trapped or entangled.
■ Use a crib or bassinet that meets safety standards: Check with the baby’s health care provider and parent education resources about product safety.
■ Room sharing: Keeping the baby’s sleep area in the same room where you sleep is a protective factor. If you bring your baby to bed to breast feed, talk to the baby’s health care provider about when to put the baby back in the crib. During sleep, adults might be unaware of rolling onto the baby or of bedding covering the baby’s nose.
Other baby health tips:
■ Breastfeed: Breastfeeding has many health benefits including added protection against illnesses.
■ Don’t allow smoking around your baby: Chemicals in secondhand smoke interfere with brain regulation of breathing in babies.
■ Learn CPR and first aid: Knowing how to perform CPR and safely remove food and small objects from a baby’s airway can save a child’s life.
Share safe sleep messages with everyone who cares for your baby. Parents can feel more relaxed when other caregivers are well-informed.
Beth Watson is a public health nurse at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, which has been a member of the Routt County Early Childhood Council since its inception in 1997. Information in this article was provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and American Academy of Pediatrics.