Confession: I once shook my baby. My oldest was about eight months old at the time, and I had finally gotten around to sleep training him. I hauled a cot into his bedroom, plopped him down in the crib and stared morosely at him, hating myself as he cried for a full hour. Eventually we both drifted off to sleep. But around 3AM I woke with a start. Was the baby breathing? I couldn’t tell. In a daze of sleepy terror I reached into the crib and shook him roughly.
He was fine — unhappy but fine.
Most parents have at least one story like that and nearly all of us are guilty of checking to make sure our sleeping babies are breathing. We could be excused for the paranoia. From the moment our kids are born, health care professionals hit us over the head with safe sleeping practices: baby on her back, no toys in the crib, tight-fitting sheets. Doctors don’t always say that if we fail to comply our babies will suffocate in their sleep. But that’s what they mean. So we follow their instructions (and if we don’t, we should). And then we proceed to worry anyway.
That is our mistake.
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Rates of sudden infant death syndrome (defined as the unexplained death of a child less than one-year-old, usually while asleep) have declined significantly. Even at its height, SIDS wasn’t exactly common—only 0.1 percent of babies died from SIDS in 1990. That figure has since dropped to 0.04 percent. To be fair, SIDS is still the leading cause of death for infants between one month and one year of age. But to be even fairer, 0.04 percent is barely 1 in 2,000.
Now 1 in 2,000 is probably risky enough to worry about—for context, your odds of dying in a car accident are 1 in 6,000. Which is why you really should be worried about SIDS if you’re not engaging in safe sleep practices, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Co-sleeping and any number of other dangerous behaviors do put your baby at risk.
But what is the risk of SIDS if you keep all the rules? AAP data claims it’s closer to 0.005 percent, or 1 in 20,000, and that’s very unlikely. Data from the British Medical Journal suggests you’re about twice as likely to win $1,000 in the UK lottery (1 in 12,000) or die from an injury in your own home (1 in 7,100). You’re far more likely to end up in the emergency room due to an injury from a can, bottle, or jar (1 in 1,000) or due to an injury from your pillow (1 in 2,000).
If you’re following the AAP’s safe sleeping guidelines, your child is essentially safe.
This doesn’t mean you need to stop peeking in to check whether the baby is breathing—my oldest is now two years old, and I still check. We’re parents, after all, and we’re going to do that. But at the very least, the act of checking need not be traumatic. Once your baby is fast asleep on his or her back, in an environment that conforms to AAP standards, you should get some sleep yourself. And if you find yourself shaking your healthy infant awake at 3 AM, desperately groping for signs of life, try to keep the statistics in mind. Odds are, your baby is just fine.