Breaking down some of the misconceptions about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Richard Kolker via Getty Images

Every year in the United States, an estimated 3,500 infants die suddenly and unexpectedly. Many of those deaths are classified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS -- the death of a baby under age 1 that cannot be explained after a comprehensive investigation. It is the leading cause of death in babies in that age group (the CDC estimates that in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, some 1,500 infants died of SIDS).

Fortunately, for most healthy infants, the overall risk is low and there are clear steps caregivers can take to help minimize it. Education is important, which is why -- to mark Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month -- we're addressing some of the most persistent SIDS myths out there:

Myth 1: Because we don't fully understand what causes SIDS, we don't know how to prevent it.

No, we cannot completely prevent SIDS, nor do we totally understand why some babies are more vulnerable than others (it's thought that certain brain abnormalities linked to breathing and sleep arousal may play a role). But anyone who cares for a baby can absolutely take a few easy steps to help lower that baby's risk.

Many babies who die in their sleep do so as a result of an unsafe sleep environment, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies be put down to sleep on their backs for their first year of life -- both for naps and at night. (Since the AAP launched its "back-to-sleep" public health campaign in the mid 1990s, the rate of SIDS dropped by more than 50 percent.) The AAP also says that the safest sleep environment is a crib or bassinet that meets current safety standards, that provides a firm sleep surface and that does not contain any loose bedding, stuffed animals or crib bumpers.

Yet experts say many parents still put their babies down in less-than-ideal sleep environments, and pop culture may play a role.

"When I watch TV or look in magazines, I see that they still don't portray safe sleep environments, and that's unfortunate, because it may lead some people to think, subconsciously, that what they're seeing is OK," Dr. Linda Fu, a pediatrician with Children's National Health System told The Huffington Post. "So, for instance, I see a lot of pictures of cribs with crib bumpers. They may help the room look more put together, and they may match the curtains or whatnot, but they're unsafe."

Furthermore, while many parents co-sleep (infant bed-sharing is, in fact, on the rise), the AAP does not recommend "any specific bed-sharing practice as safe." The organization adds that bed-sharing may be particularly risky in cases where the infant is very young, or when the parents are smokers, are especially tired, or have had anything to drink.

Myth 2: Putting your baby down on his or her back increases choking risk.

"There's an old wives' tale that if you put your baby down on his back, he'll throw up and choke on it," said Dr. David Mendez, a neonatologist at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami, Florida. "I still see a lot of parents who believe that, and part of it is generational ... it's about how you were raised. Breaking those generational teachings is hard."

It's so hard, in fact, that the AAP says one of the most common concern it hears with regards to its back-to-sleep campaign is that babies will spit up and choke while sleeping on their backs. However, the group reassures parents that many studies -- as well as simply the test of time -- have shown that healthy babies who sleep on their backs are able to turn their heads and protect their airways if they do happen to spit up.

Myth 3: There's a link between SIDS and vaccines.

Is there a connection between childhood vaccination and SIDS? No, the experts say -- and they say it emphatically.

"There's no data for it, and anyone who says there is a link is lying," said Mendez. "There's no science behind it at all."

One possible explanation for this particular myth's roots, and persistence, may have to do with the fact that some babies who die of SIDS may have recently been vaccinated against Diptheria-tetanus-pertussis, or DTP, leading some people to imagine a causal link. "This logic is faulty however; you might as well say that eating bread causes car crashes, since most drivers who crash their cars could probably be shown to have eaten bread within the past 24 hours," the WHO says. In other words, just because babies' SIDS risk is highest when they are under 6 months old, and that also happens to be when they receive their three DTP shots, that does not mean the two are related.

Myth 4: Smart monitors protect babies against SIDS.

Unfortunately, science suggests that so-called smart monitors -- monitors that track babies' vital signs throughout the night -- don't make much of a difference when it comes to SIDS prevention. A recent editorial in the British Medical Journal argued that wearable devices don't lower the risk for most healthy babies, and points out that manufacturers of those devices don't even really claim they do. The monitors can also be too smart for their own good, says Mendez, meaning the alarms go off seemingly all the time, leading parents to eventually just turn them off.

"It's like the boy who cried wolf," he said.

When it comes to monitoring your baby, the AAP does recommend that parents sleep in the same room, saying there's evidence that room-sharing (without bed-sharing) can reduce SIDs risk by as much as 50 percent. (The AAP's recommendations are generally aimed at babies up to age 1, but Fu said room-sharing is perhaps most important in the first few months.)

"The thought is you can see the baby, so if anything is going on, they're right there," she said.

"And it's perhaps because none of you sleep as well," she added with a knowing laugh. Parents are more attuned to their babies' breathing and noises, and babies don't sleep quite as soundly, which means they may be more alert internally to anything that's amiss, Fu explained.

Myth 5: It's important to always flip your baby over onto his or her back.

SIDS risk peaks around two to three months, and drops significantly by the time babies turn 6 months old -- which is also around the time that many babies can roll over from front-to-back and back-to-front. So, even if parents diligently put their babies to sleep on their back at every nap and at nighttime, they won't and don't necessarily stay that way -- and experts say that at that age, it's OK. Once babies can roll over, their brains are generally mature enough to alert themselves to any risk, plus they can get themselves out of a situation where their breathing is impaired.

"You do not, at that point, have to get up and roll your baby over," said Fu. "The idea is not to make parents crazy."

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