I was doing some research on the internet about sleep position and SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and came across a blog post that says exactly what I was going to say, but in much more detail, and with a critical analysis of the statistics used when the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all infants be kept on their backs while sleeping. This campaign has lowered the rate of SIDS by about 50%, but about 3000 infants still die from SIDS every year.
Reading this story is heart-wrenching. It’s a long post, but I strongly recommend that you read through it. I frequently see parents in my practice that are literally in tears when they are berated by their pediatricians to keep their infants on their backs, despite the fact that their child can’t sleep in this position.
Sleep and pediatric researchers have shown that one possible mechanism as to why back sleeping helps to prevent SIDS is that it keeps babies in a lighter stage of sleep. This makes them much more easily aroused. If there is some kind of dangerous breathing stoppage, they’re more likely to wake up and start breathing again. What he also points out is that deep sleep is diminished by 8-9% in infants that sleep on their backs for the first 6 months. He calculated that back sleeping infants lose about 4 hours of sleep per day and 120 hours of sleep in the first month. We know that quality sleep is so important to an infant’s brain development and motor skills.
So it’s not surprising that there’s been an increase in rates of motor skill, cognitive and other developmental delays. Other studies have shown increased rates of sleep apnea, flat-head (my second son had this), and acid reflux. There’s even one blog that points to the back to sleep campaign as a major cause of the autism spike that began in the mid 1990s. I’ve also suspected that the decreasing rates of tonsillectomies in the 1980s and 1990s may adversely affect cognitive development (ADHD).
Numerous studies have shown that there are a number of other significant risk factors that increase the risk for SIDS, including bed-sharing, cold weather months, smoking, and soft bedding, whereas pacifier use and breast-feeding are protective. African Americans and Native Americans had significantly higher rates.
One major anatomic reason for SIDS is the fact the the infant’s voice box is very high in the throat, behind the tongue, with the epiglottis overlapping the soft palate. Gradually, over the course of 2-4 months, the voice box begins to descend. At a certain point, the collapsibility of the tongue into the newly created oropharynx may reach a critical point when various factors come into play (sleep stage, sleep position, cigarette smoke, etc). This timeframe is also when the rate of SIDS peaks.
In particular, the author points out that most SIDS studies use an odds ratio calculation that can easily overestimate the true risk, and is often confused with relative risk. Because these studies are retrospective studies with relatively small numbers of subjects along with a number of different variables, odds ratio is used over relative risk. The explanation of the difference between odds ratio and relative risk is a bit lengthy so I recommend you read the article, which is very clear. He hammers on the concept that correlation does not equate with causation. To date there’s no good explanation for SIDS, which still happens in about 1/1000 babies, of which 1/3 die while on their backs.
One interesting statistic that he pointed out is the fact the the risk of dying from SIDS if you have no other risk factors is only 10% (including no tummy sleeping) of the original risk. He poses this interesting question: Is it worth sleep depriving all infants of 25% of sleep in the first few months to protect less than 0.1% of babies?
I’m not recommending that everyone go against mainstream medicine’s recommendations. However, we need to re-evaluate the rationale for this recommendation and consider all the possible unintended consequences.
What are your thoughts on this subject?