Practicing “safe sleep” is not easy

In my job as a social worker I’m required to encourage and remind parents of infants to engage in “safe sleep” practices, which means that the baby is lying on their back face up, on a flat surface in a crib or a bassinet, with nothing in the crib/bassinet. This is to prevent a baby from choking or dying while they sleep. Scientific research has shown that babies lying face down can drool and accidentally choke on their own drool. Most recent research shows that the safest way for a baby to sleep is lying face up with no objects around them which has a potential of being a choking hazard.

This is really good in theory, but my God,I did not realize until I became a parent myself that the so-called safe sleep practice feels impossibly difficult.

This is my daughter’s favorite position when she lies down. As you can see, my baby is so used to being curled up in my wife’s womb that her normal reflex is to curl up her legs and arms. Using a swaddle helps somewhat but she is constantly fighting against gravity. Her legs and arms sometimes go down and she can look like a normally sleeping human being in that instant, which you can see below.

But pretty quickly her natural reaction is to curl up her legs and arms. That jolting reflex tends to wake her up. Unless she is dead tired, that reflex will wake her up. When she wakes up, she cries and cries and cries even as her face turns red. The only way she stops crying at that point is for my wife or me to hold her and sway her and try to soothe her.

It’s only the 2nd week and already my wife and I are getting used to the idea of having to stay awake on odd hours of the night like usually from 1am to 4am.

We find that using a swaddle to tightly hold in her legs and arms are helpful but even so there were still times I was holding my daughter and swaying her from 2am to 5am. Then it was time to feed her and afterwards she was tired enough to sleep on the bassinet until about 8am, at which point she woke up crying to demand more soothing, diaper change, and milk. Because a newborn has been so used to the darkness of being in the womb they tend to be the most hyperactive and awake during night-time, to the dismay of us, the parents.

I’m in a fortunate situation where ny wife and I can coordinate as partners. Some nights I try to be the one to stay up all night, and some nights it’s my wife who does so. We are both out on parental leave for at least a month so we are still getting our paychecks even though we are essentially self-quarantined at home. I am grateful of all of this and try not to take any of this for granted.

I think it’s easy to tell parents what to do and how they should raise their kids and whatnot. But even practicing safe sleep, which on paper is such a simple concept, I can now understand firsthand why many families feel too overwhelmed and over-burdened to do it.

I try to imagine if I was a single parent like many of my clients at work. They usually also have another child or two to manage while simultaneously tending to the meeds of an infant. It must be so hard for them.

But what happens with these families is social workers, ACS workers, case managers, etc constantly evaluating their parenting and judging them if they are not able to engage in safe sleep practices.

I remember that one of my clients was asked to watch an informational video about safe sleep 5 times by the shelter workers, and by city workers. The mom kept reiterating that she was aware but that her infant son would not stop crying if he was laid down face up, and would only sleep face down. She said that this was her 2nd child and she tried safe sleep on her first but likewise her first son couldn’t do safe sleep either and her firstborn turned out healthy and fine. She said trying to do safe sleep stressed her out so much and she wasn’t able to get any sleep trying.

I now completely understand what this client meant when she said these things. Safe sleep may be the most scientifically sound practice at this time but it will feel very unnatural for a baby so used being curled up in a fetal position for many months.

Before I went on my paternity leave, I remember one of my clients telling me that when I come back to work as a father, I will probably be a better social worker because I will better relate to real struggles that parents have. I now appreciate what that client said even more. I think and hope that she was very correct.

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