— -- Many parents may unwittingly be placing their babies at increased risk of dying by putting them to sleep in ways that make sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and other forms of sleep-related death more likely, according to a small new study published in the journal Pediatrics today.
Researchers at the Pennsylvania State College of Medicine studied video camera footage of more than 160 infants, which was recorded while they slept.
The research was originally aimed at determining new mothers’ preferred sleeping arrangements. But as one of the researchers, Dr. Ian Paul, reviewed the footage, he noticed that in many cases, infants were being put to bed in unsafe ways -- such as being placed on their sides or put into cribs full of potentially dangerous items.
“I was surprised and alarmed,” said Paul, a professor of pediatrics and public health sciences at Pennsylvania State College.
“I’ve been a pediatrician for 18 years. I am not naive to think parents listen to everything, but [the fact that] almost every baby had loose bedding in their sleep environment was surprising to me.”
According to the study, even though these parents were aware that they were being recorded in the experiment, more than nine out of 10 of the infants studied were placed in sleep environments with non-recommended, potentially hazardous items that increase the risk of suffocation, including pillows, bumper pads, loose bedding, and stuffed animals.
The researchers also found that parents would put the babies on their sides or stomachs, or practice “co-sleeping” -- the act of sharing the bed with their infants. These practices, too, put babies at risk of suffocation or injury.
The study also found that when infants were moved to a different sleep environment in the middle of the night, babies tended to end up in even more unsafe conditions.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 3,500 U.S. infants die of SIDS every year. To help deal with this problem, the National Institutes of Health launched the Safe to Sleep campaign, which is designed to educate parents on actions they can take to lower their child’s chances of sleep-related death.
“There is a lot we can do to reduce the risk a baby will die from SIDS or accidental smothering or strangulation,” said ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser, also a pediatrician. “The Safe to Sleep campaign has been very successful at reducing the rate of SIDS, but accidental suffocation and strangulation are on the rise.”
Besser added that the observation that babies who were moved in the middle of the night tended to be placed in more dangerous situations is important.
“I always talk to new parents about putting their babies down to sleep on their backs in a crib that is free from blankets, toys, bumpers, or pillows,” he said. “I think I’ll now add a message about what you do in the middle of the night if your baby wakes up.... You never want to move them to a setting where they will be less safe.”
Dr. Shali Zhang is a Chief Resident in Dermatology at Emory University. She is also a resident at ABC News in the medical unit.