What's Wrong With This Picture? Baby Is in Danger

Magazine photos, ads show unsafe baby sleep positions and situations that may cause SIDS, study says.

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Danger hides in these cozy scenes: an infant sleeping on its tummy on a plush sheepskin rug; twin newborns snoozing side by side in a crib; a crib decked with so many blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals that there's nearly no room for a baby. If you've thumbed through some popular parenting and women's magazines lately, chances are you've seen images depicting these or similar scenes. And while they may make for good photographs, they set bad examples for parents, experts say. Those situations, they say, are not safe for sleeping babies.

This photo was one of many studied by researcher Rachel Moon and her colleagues. The researchers concluded that it depicts unsafe behavior because infants should only sleep on their backs—not on their sides—and should not be put down to sleep on soft surfaces.

"There are a lot of mixed messages that are being sent to families," says Rachel Moon, a pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center in Washington who has probed several widely read parenting and women's magazines and found that many photos in articles and advertisements clash with what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents do to keep infants safe while asleep. More than a third of the photos of sleeping babies showed the infants in perilous positions, and two thirds of those depicting cribs and other sleep environments showed situations that the organization deems dangerous, Moon and other researchers reported today in Pediatrics.

"That's a problem," says Moon. "Studies have shown that where the baby sleeps and how the baby sleeps are very important in terms of SIDS risk reduction." SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, remains the chief killer of infants under age 1. Experts use the SIDS label to describe the abrupt, unexpected death of a seemingly healthy baby, usually during sleep, that neither autopsy nor death-scene examination can explain.

Putting babies to sleep on their tummies is a recognized culprit in some SIDS cases. Since the AAP and other organizations launched the "Back to Sleep" campaign in the early '90s, urging parents to place babies face-up to sleep, the rate of SIDS has dropped by more than 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moon worries that gain could erode if parents become confused by images in the media.

SIDS "is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a family," says Judith Palfrey, a pediatrician and president-elect of the AAP. "All we can do is recognize that there are certain things"—like tummy sleeping—"that are correlated with this very bad outcome."

Don't count on photos in the popular press to showcase appropriate behavior. Here are some of the things the AAP does and doesn't recommend that parents do to lower the risks of SIDS and causes of accidental infant death, including suffocation and entrapment during sleep:

  • Do put a baby to sleep on her back, not on her side or stomach. It's thought that some SIDS babies have an abnormality in the brain region that regulates breathing and the ability to wake up, says Bradley Thach, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis. Babies put in a "suffocating situation" respond by turning their heads to get fresh air. But, according to the theory, babies with this brain abnormality may not, Thach says.
  • Avoid "soft bedding," says Moon. "We mean blankets, we mean pillows, we mean soft bumper pads, stuffed animals, anything that's soft," she says. Soft sleep surfaces, such as couches, and cushy comforters also pose risks. "People aren't getting the message about soft bedding, and I think a lot of it is because it's being sold," adds Moon. "People don't believe that manufacturers would sell things that are dangerous for babies." Parents also may get gifts from friends who don't know that babies don't need a whole layette set, complete with blankets, pillows, and bumper pads, Moon says.
  • This photo was one of many studied by Rachel Moon and her colleagues. The researchers concluded that it depicts unsafe behavior because infants should not co-sleep, even with other babies.