Preventing Sudden Infant Death with the ABCs

‘Safe Sleep’ campaign raises awareness about sudden unexpected infant death

Proper sleeping habits for infants can greatly reduce the risk of SIDS. Photo: Tony Mobley

Get ready for baby! Preparing for the arrival of a newborn can be a very exciting time. There’s lots to do. Most new parents want to learn all they can before their baby arrives so that they can be ready for practically anything. “Preventable death” isn’t typically a phrase that parents think of when “nesting.” Yet the sad truth is, babies are susceptible to untimely deaths just like anyone else.

“r Sleep DC,” a new, shared effort by DC Healthy Families Thriving Communities Collaboratives and Child and Family Services Agency, aims to educate parents and caretakers about the danger of Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID).

It Can Happen
Yes, babies can expire suddenly. Sometimes the cause is known. Other times, it isn’t so clear. As the name implies, infant death can occur without warning. The sudden death of an infant within the first year of life is called SUID or SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). The DC Child Fatality Review Committee published a report from the Infant Mortality Review Team in 2015 which cites SUID (undetermined) as the cause of death for two of the infant mortality cases. In these cases, unsafe conditions such as infants sleeping on adult mattresses, on air mattresses, or with adults or other children were found.

According to Sharafdeen Ibraheem, deputy director of East River Family Strengthening Collaborative, “Although the numbers are not high, one death is too many. One of the questions raised was how do we work with these communities. The numbers were higher in Wards 5,7, and 8. So we wanted to make sure we had a better outreach to show that we are educating and promoting healthy sleeping habits for infants and children. Also pay attention to environmental factors that contribute to the barriers to child development such as income level, substance abuse, mental health, lack of food.”

Facts over Fear
Learning the facts about SUID can help overcome some of the anxiety. There is a method of putting babies to sleep that has been proven to greatly decrease the chances of infant death. The best way to put a baby down to sleep is taught with the acronym ABC:

A. Alone: babies should be left to sleep on their own. When babies sleep with adults or pets they become more susceptible to suffocation.
B. Back: babies should be placed on their back in the crib. It is better for breathing.
C. Crib: babies should sleep in a crib with a firm mattress (or pack and play). The crib should be free from toys, pillows, bumper guards, and blankets. The sheet should fit tightly on the mattress.

It also helps to control other things such as the manner in which the infant is dressed, the room temperature, and whether or not the room is smoke-free. Rosie Parke, director of communications, partnerships, and community engagement at East River Family Strengthening Collaborative on Minnesota Avenue NE, explains that “overdressing a baby can make the baby too hot, which is not conducive for them to sleep the safest. Another part of it is making sure that the temperature in the room is comfortable. It’s not too hot or too cold. What is comfortable for you is comfortable for your baby.”

Smoking during pregnancy and second-hand smoke can also contribute to SIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control, second-hand smoke increases the risk for SIDS. Cigarette smoke can deprive babies of oxygen. That deprivation can disrupt the development of the brain center which is responsible for controlling breathing. Nicotine and its byproduct cotinine can be found in smoke and in the mother’s breast milk. Infants who die from SIDS have been found to have a higher concentration of nicotine in their lungs than other infants. Keeping smokers out of the home is another way to keep infants safe.

Cultural Barriers
History shows that mothers have been sleeping with their babies for generations. It’s a bonding thing. It soothes the baby and provides some sort of peace so that mom and baby can rest better. When you ask minority families to start breaking that tradition, it’s easier said than done.

The approach must take into account that parents may have a hard time breaking this tradition. Josue Salmeron, deputy director of Collaborative Solutions for Communities in Northwest, says working with the Latino community requires cultural competency. “We have different approaches for our Spanish-speaking families. We provide home visits for the family in a bilingual, bicultural manner. They have some challenges around co-sleep culture. Some things reinforce the co-sleep culture such as breastfeeding.” He notes that “it’s not just Latino communities but also African-American and white communities as well. It may be good for bonding but it’s not safe.”

What Can Safe Sleep DC Do to Help?
Safe Sleep DC can offer assistance to parents who may be unaware of the dangers of improper sleeping habits. Parke explains that the purpose of the program is “to notify mothers and caregivers about the importance of placing babies and infants to sleep the safest way, which is alone, on their backs, and in their own beds (crib or pack and play). The second part is to provide education to parents and caregivers. We show them what a safe sleep space looks like.”

Case workers from the various collaboratives in all eight wards can offer one-on-one support or group education in the form of workshops for parents, caregivers, and even homecare providers about how to properly put infants to sleep. They can also visit the home to help prepare the space for the baby to sleep and ensure that cribs, carriers, pack and plays, and other equipment are properly installed and safe. Safe Sleep DC also provides safety-approved pack and plays to parents with children between the ages of newborn and 12 months.

For more information on Safe Sleep DC, visit or call your local collaborative: East River Family Strengthening Collaborative, 202-397-7300, for Ward 7, and Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative for Ward 8, 202-889-1425.


Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News.