There are few things cuter than a tiny baby curled up and fast asleep, perhaps gripping a stuffed animal or a blanket.
The cute factor is one of the reasons pictures of babies sleeping work in advertisements for a variety of consumer products, but curled up on their sides or prone on their stomachs is not the safest position for sleeping babies.
Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advise caretakers to put infants to sleep on their backs and to avoid loose bedding, soft sleeping surfaces and bed sharing in order to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the leading cause of death in children between one month and one year of age.
But a study published today in the journal Pediatrics found that, contrary to these recommendations, magazines geared toward women ages 20 to 40 often portray infants in unsafe sleeping positions, which could be detrimental to new parents.
"It's a subliminal message. If a mom sees that [unsafe ad], she may think it's OK to sleep her baby in that particular position," said Brandi Joyner, a SIDS researcher and health educator at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and lead author of the study. "That causes confusion as far as complacency in infant sleep practices."
The study examined almost 400 pictures of sleeping infants from 28 magazines, including Parenting, Pregnancy and Baby Talk, with an average female readership of five million. In most cases, media portrayals were not consistent with AAP recommendations for safe sleep practices. Infants were photographed on their stomachs or sides 36 percent of the time, and 63 percent of the images depicted unsafe sleeping environments containing pillows, stuffed animals and blankets, or sharing a bed with an adult.
Pediatricians agreed that messages to parents about child care should be consistent across all channels and up to the proper safety standards.
"I think it is interesting and not surprising that the authors found inconsistencies in what is portrayed in the media and what is actually recommended," Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician and author of the book "Baby 411." "If the media would be more aware of some of these [AAP] recommendations when they are claiming to educate their readers [...] we could be doing a real service to the public."
Although magazines may not be the "most important" source of information on child-rearing practices, as the study authors suggest, they are a ubiquitous source that experts agree have the potential to influence parents.
"I recall the images of Jennifer Lopez's nursery [from People magazine] for her newborn twins," said Dr. Fern Hauck, a member of the AAP Task Force on SIDS and director of the International Family Medicine Clinic at the University of Virginia. "Fluffy comforters, bumper pads [...] totally wrong message. You can be sure that all those readers took away the message that this was the nursery to yearn for."
But there is no clear consensus about who should take responsibility for an advertisement featuring an infant in an unsafe sleeping position.
"If [advertisers] are going to use babies that are sleeping, it's very important that they need to know and be aware of infant safe sleep practices," Joyner said. "I think everyone should be on one accord."