A baby can suffocate if something covers his mouth and nose, thus preventing breathing. Plastic bags and soft bedding are the main culprits. A portion of the deaths that have been attributed to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in the past are now thought to really have been cases of suffocation on soft bedding.
Forget Pillows and Blankets
Babies need a firm mattress for sleeping. That's all. If the nursery is too cool, they should be dressed in pajama sleepers. They don't need—and shouldn't have—pillows, quilts, blankets, stuffed toys, or anything else in their cribs that could interfere with breathing. Remember that an infant can't easily lift his head or roll over if something covers his face.
For this reason, young babies should not be put to sleep alone in an adult bed. Sleeping with an adult can be dangerous, too. A few babies have died when sleeping with parents who rolled over on them. This is more likely to happen if the parent is sleep-deprived from taking care of the new baby or has taken medications or alcohol.
Around the age of 4 to 7 months, the danger of suffocating while sleeping lessens because that's when most infants begin to roll over on their own.
Tales from the Safety Zone
Putting infants to sleep without covers may seem like an over-reaction to some parents, but federal regulators say getting rid of blankets, quilts, and comforters could save the lives of 900 babies a year! Recent studies have concluded that nearly one third of the babies whose deaths are attributed to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) were sleeping with blankets that were believed to be a contributing factor. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is urging stores to change displays so they no longer show off baby quilts and comforters in cribs.
Many lives have been saved since the word went out that infants should sleep on their backs. Re-member the slogan “back to bed”—and make sure your caregiver knows it, too.
On average, 20 kids die each year from suffocation by plastic bags. The bags used by dry-cleaners are especially hazardous because the thin plastic can easily conform to a small child's face and create an air-tight barrier. Garbage bags also have caused deaths when kids climbed into them or babies rolled onto them while sleeping. Teach your child not to play with these bags. Dispose of them in a receptacle in a cabinet fitted with a child-resistant lock.
Getting out of Tight Places
You used to hear more often about kids who'd find an abandoned refrigerator, climb in to play, then get trapped and suffocate. Today's household refrigerators have latches that can easily be opened from the inside, but some old freezers and refrigerators are still around and are potentially lethal.
Clothes dryers have a tight-fitting gasket and enough insulation that a child trapped inside can run out of air. Large picnic coolers and ice boxes in campers have also caused suffocation. Teach your child not to climb into these items. Explain that with the door closed, there's not enough air for him to breathe, and that he probably wouldn't be heard if he called for help.
If you have an old, unused freezer or refrigerator in your basement, remove the door. Many communities require this before these appliances can be discarded. It's a simple process that can be done with a screw driver. An alternative is to fasten the door with a chain and padlock.
Car trunks can be attractive—and deadly—hiding places for children at play. Trunks are especially dangerous when it's hot outside because a child can die from the heat in a matter of minutes.
Car makers are addressing this problem. General Motors was the first to offer a dealer-installed retrofit kit with a lighted escape handle so the trunk can be opened from the inside. The retrofit includes a modified trunk latch with a lever that an adult has to reset in order for the trunk lid to close. The kit costs $50. Other carmakers have started offering similar fixes for older cars.
In cars now being built, manufacturers are employing a variety of trunk release technologies. General Motors, for example, uses an infrared system with heat and motion detectors that pop the trunk open if the car is in park and a person is inside. This kind of passive system means a child doesn't have to do anything in order to open the trunk and escape. There also is a manual handle inside.
General Motors' experiments with trunk releases found that passive systems are best because many young children won't understand they can open the trunk with a release handle. It's best to keep the car inaccessible by keeping your keys out of children's reach and teaching them never to get into the trunk.