11 Ways to Reduce Your Baby's Risk of SIDS

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is responsible for about 3,400 infant deaths every year. While rates are declining, it can be helpful for parents to learn ways to reduce the risks.

Despite years of research, Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is still a challenge to both families and the medical world. SIDS is part of a phenomenon known as Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome (SUIDS), according to Steven A. Shapiro, D.O., chair of the Pediatrics Department at Abington–Jefferson Health.

The good news is that the incidence of SIDS has dropped tremendously since the launch of the Safe to Sleep (formerly Back to Sleep) campaign in 1994. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports about 3,400 sudden and unexpected infant deaths continue to occur each year in the U.S.

The unpredictability and finality of SIDS scare new parents who desperately want to keep Baby safe, but you can take some actions to help reduce his risk. Here are the top SIDS prevention strategies and facts that parents need to know.

SIDS Risk Factors

The causes of SIDS aren't really understood. "Most babies who die of SIDS appear perfectly normal," says Rachel Moon, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics's SIDS Task Force.

But experts believe that babies with SIDS have an immature arousal center in the brain. Put simply, they can't wake themselves up when they're having trouble breathing. Infants who sleep on their stomachs are particularly vulnerable to SIDS—possibly because this position increases the likelihood that they will re-inhale oxygen-depleted air.

"We do know that there are demographic and environmental risks," Dr. Moon adds, noting that African American and Native American babies die of SIDS at 2 to 3 times the national average, and 3 out of 5 SIDS victims are males. Other groups at increased risk include premature babies, low-birthweight babies, and infants who are exposed to cigarette smoke.

In terms of age, "the peak danger is between 2 and 4 months old," says Marian Willinger, Ph.D., special assistant for SIDS at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in Bethesda, Maryland. However, you should continue to take steps to safeguard your child from SIDS until they turn one.

11 Ways to Reduce the Risk of SIDS

Unfortunately, not all cases of SIDS can be prevented and a May 2022 study suggested there may be a biological component involved in SIDS as well. However, there are steps you can take to help reduce the risk of SIDS in your baby.

Never let your baby sleep on their stomach.

Back-sleeping increases a baby's access to fresh air and makes them less likely to get overheated (another factor linked to SIDS). But some parents still practice stomach-sleeping: 18% of Parents readers say they usually put their infants to sleep on their stomachs, and another 13% do so some of the time.

"Some exhausted new parents may do it out of desperation because infants tend to sleep better and more deeply on their stomachs," says Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep. But the truth is, stomach sleeping really is correlated with higher risks of SIDS—infants who normally sleep on their back are actually 18 times more likely to die of SIDS when placed down on their tummy for a snooze. "Infants seem to have difficulty adjusting to the change," says Dr. Moon.

Despite the dangers of stomach sleeping, though, you shouldn't worry if your little one begins to flip over on their own. "Once a baby can roll over by themselves, their brain is mature enough to alert them to breathing dangers," says Dr. Moon. "And by the time they are 6 months old, their improved motor skills will help them to rescue themselves, so the SIDS risk is greatly reduced."

Keep in mind, however, that awake tummy time is still an important part of your baby's development. Your baby should still have several supervised "tummy time" sessions every day. This helps your baby's development, and it also prevents flat spots on their head from sleeping on their back. "Babies need tummy time when parents are awake, alert, and observing carefully," advises Dr. Shapiro. "Tummy time is not sleep time—it's development time."

Side-sleeping isn’t safe, either.

Studies show that putting a baby down on their side rather than on their back increases the risk of SIDS. "It's easier for an infant to roll onto their tummy from their side than from their back," says Dr. Moon, who is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Task Force on SIDS. "And they may not yet have the skills to roll back in the other direction."

Don’t put anything in the crib except a fitted sheet.

Wait until your baby's first birthday to put a pillow and blanket in the crib. Blankets, pillows, comforters, and stuffed toys can hinder your child's breathing; even soft or improperly fitting mattresses can be dangerous. If you're worried that your little one may get chilly, swaddle them in a receiving blanket or use a sleep sack. According to a 2017 study, swaddling helps fussy infants sleep better on their back and may protect them from SIDS by causing them to startle more easily. But always practice proper swaddling techniques, and don't swaddle too tight. "Your baby needs to be able to move around and have the ability to kick and squirm," says Dr. Shapiro.

Don't use positioners or other baby gadgets for sleep.

While things like breastfeeding pillows or "lounge" pillows can be helpful during your baby's awake time, they should never be used for sleeping. Additionally, you should never let your baby sleep in anything other than an approved crib or bassinet with a flat sleeping surface. Car seats, baby swings, baby seats, and things like the recalled "Rock `n Play" should never be used for sleep either.

Maintain a comfortable temperature in the nursery.

Make sure you don't overheat your baby with swaddling or high room temperature. "A nursery that's too warm substantially increases an infant's SIDS risk," says Warren Guntheroth, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, in Seattle. That might be because the warm baby falls into such a deep sleep that it is difficult for them to awaken if they are in trouble. Set the thermostat at 68 degrees, don't put the crib near a radiator, and dress your child in light layers that you can remove easily if they get hot.

Be careful with co-sleeping.

While co-sleeping in bed, your infant could be suffocated by a pillow or a loose blanket. Their air supply may be cut off if you or your spouse inadvertently rolls over onto them. And they could be strangled if their head gets trapped between the headboard and mattress. The same dangers occur with co-sleeping on a couch or an armchair.

Despite numerous studies that confirm the heightened SIDS risk caused by co-sleeping, many parents continue to do it. According to a Parents.com poll, 52% of readers do it all or some of the time, citing the added convenience for nighttime feedings and the security of having their infants next to them.

It's important to be aware of the risks of co-sleeping and SIDS and if you decide to co-sleep, don't put your baby right in the bed. And think twice about a co-sleeping crib that clamps onto the frame of your bed, since "parents could still suffocate their baby with an arm or leg," warns Dr. Shapiro. The best bet might be room-sharing by moving your baby's crib into your room, which is what the AAP recommends in its safe sleeping guidelines that were updated in 2022.

Make sure your baby has enough room.

Your little one should be able to move around and squirm while sleeping. "A baby that can't move very well can get into dangerous positions that become compromising," says Dr. Shapiro. He advises parents to avoid super-narrow bassinets and other small beds. "Position your baby with their hands out above their heads so they are freely movable, and don't wrap hips tight if swaddling," he says.

Give your baby a pacifier.

Pacififers can actually reduce the risk of SIDS. "We don't know why yet," Dr. Moon says, "but it may be that sucking on a pacifier brings a baby's tongue forward, which opens the airway a little bit more." Or it could be that babies who use pacifiers don't fall into as deep a sleep as babies who don't. The AAP now recommends that you consider giving your child a pacifier at night and for naps during their first year. Note: If you're breastfeeding, don't introduce a pacifier until your infant is 1 month old and nursing well.

Breastfeed, if possible.

Babies who are breastfed are more easily roused from sleep than formula-fed babies, which may be a reason breastfed babies are less likely to die from SIDS. Parents who breastfeed are also less likely to smoke, and a baby's exposure to smoke—both in the womb and secondhand—increases the risk for SIDS, says Dr. Shapiro. However, all those late-night nursing sessions may also pose a risk too, so be proactive in making sure you lay your baby down in their crib. (And don't be afraid to enlist your partner if you need help!)

"If you are feeding your baby and think that there's even the slightest possibility that you may fall asleep, feed your baby on your bed, rather than a sofa or cushioned chair," said Lori Feldman-Winter, M.D., FAAP, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Task Force on SIDS. "If you do fall asleep, as soon as you wake up be sure to move the baby to their own bed," she said.

Talk with your childcare providers.

It's always a good idea to confirm what your childcare provider's guidelines and practices for SIDS prevention are. 1 out of 5 SIDS deaths occurs when a baby is in daycare or being watched by someone other than a parent, according to research in the journal Pediatrics. There are no national safe sleep guidelines daycares must follow and it's up to states to set their own rules, so it's always best to check your daycare's policies for yourself.

That's not to scare you out of daycare, but to just be aware that you review SIDS precautions with everyone who watches your child, whether it's a day-care worker, a babysitter, a relative, or a friend. They must know how to keep your infant safe while they sleep, so you can rest easy too.

Skip anti-SIDS gadgets.

Unless your baby has a diagnosed cardiac or respiratory illness, using an electronic breathing monitor doesn't help, says the AAP—and it may actually give parents a misguided sense of security. Devices marketed to reduce carbon dioxide rebreathing, such as crib mattresses with built-in fans, are also not proven to be effective. And avoid wedge-shaped sleep positioners that claim to keep your baby on her back: An infant can slide off and suffocate against it.

Summary of SIDS Prevention Strategies

In order to prevent SIDS, do the following things:

  • Always put your baby to sleep on their back—never on their stomach or side.
  • Have your baby sleep in a crib in your room. Never share your bed with your baby.
  • Make sure your baby's crib mattress is firm.
  • Don't put anything in the crib except a tight-fitting sheet. Avoid crib bumpers, blankets, pillows, and soft toys.
  • Use a pacifier at sleep time.
  • Try swaddling your child.
  • Don't smoke while pregnant, and don't allow anyone to smoke around your infant. Also, never expose your baby to other illicit drugs.
  • Don't overdress your child or put their crib near a heat source.

SIDS and Age: When is My Baby No Longer at Risk?

Although the causes of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) are still largely unknown, doctors do know that the risk of SIDS appears to peak between 2 and 4 months. SIDS can occur anytime during a baby's first year of life, but the risk also decreases after 6 months, and it's extremely rare after one year of age.

Updated by
Nicole Harris
Nicole Harris, SEO Editor
Nicole Harris is the Editor at Parents. She joined the team in 2018 as a Staff Writer and was promoted to SEO Editor in 2021. She now covers everything from children's health to parenting trends. Nicole's writing has appeared in Martha Stewart Weddings, Good Housekeeping, The Knot, BobVila.com, and other publications. A graduate of Syracuse University, Nicole currently lives in New Jersey with her husband.
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