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Suffocation Deaths: Prevention

Most infant suffocations occur when babies are placed face down on a soft surface that they sink into. Babies from birth to 6 months old have the greatest risk of suffocating. These young infants don't have enough strength to lift their heads and turn their faces so that they can breathe. Many of these deaths occur when a baby naps at the home of a friend who doesn't have a crib or doesn't know the importance of having the baby sleep on his back.

Another cause of suffocation in young infants should be mentioned. Small babies have been smothered by mothers who inadvertently fell asleep on top of them. If you nurse your baby in your bed at night, be careful. Keep your baby in a crib next to your bed.

There's another reason not to let your baby sleep in your bed during the first 6 months. The mattresses in most adult beds are too soft for babies. Blankets and pillows also increase the risk of suffocation.

Suffocation deaths account for some crib deaths (sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS). Despite extensive research, the cause of other crib deaths remains unknown. True SIDS can't be predicted or prevented. There is one exception: smoking in the house greatly increases the risk of SIDS and should be avoided.

Prevention of Suffocation in Infants

To be safe, always place your young baby to sleep on his back in a crib with a firm mattress. Also do this for naps. This is the sleep position recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for healthy infants during the first 6 months of life. Sleeping on the side is not an acceptable alternative because it is an unstable position and has a 2 times greater risk of SIDS then sleeping on the back. Sleeping on the tummy (face-down) has a 5 times greater risk.

Soft surfaces are unsafe for babies even if they are placed on their backs. Someone, such as another child or baby sitter, might turn them over.

You can prevent these tragic deaths by suffocation by never putting young infants down to sleep on the following soft surfaces:

  • waterbeds or featherbeds
  • sheepskin rugs or mattress covers
  • any weak, spongy surfaces, including soft mattresses and comforters
  • mattresses covered with plastic bags
  • soft pillows, such as bean-bag or bead-filled pillows.

Also, avoid stuffed toys, quilts, comforters, blankets, or other soft objects that could bunch up around your child's face. Dress your child warmly enough so blankets are not needed.

Prevention of Suffocation in Toddlers

Older infants and toddlers can be suffocated by plastic bags or sheets of plastic. These accidents usually occur when they pull the plastic over their heads or crawl into plastic bags. Carefully dispose of any plastic bags or keep them away from children less than 3 years old. Examples of such products are:

  • plastic dry-cleaning bags
  • plastic shopping bags
  • plastic trash bags.
Written by B.D. Schmitt, M.D., author of "Your Child's Health," Bantam Books.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2005-04-14
Last reviewed: 2006-03-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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