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On Oct. 24, 2017, at the American Academy of Pediatrics Annual Meeting in San Francisco, a small contingent of doctors held a press conference to highlight changes to the Academy’s safe sleep recommendations to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and other infant sleep-related deaths.
Dr. Sam Hanke, a pediatric cardiologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, sat on the panel looking very much like any other qualified member of the team—and he was. But he wasn’t there for his impressive resume. Hanke was asked to speak as a father—about his son Charlie.
While members of the Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome rattled through the technical report and guidelines, Hanke stood raw before the crowd of journalists and safe-sleep experts and made the new recommendations personal.
“The night we lost Charlie was not unlike any of the newborn nights before it,” Hanke said. “But, my wife had reached a point of exhaustion and I offered to hold a fussy Charlie to give her some much-needed rest. I sat on the couch with Charlie watching TV and unexpectedly fell asleep. When I woke up Charlie was gone.”
See Hanke speak about his loss here, and get some tips for safe sleep from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Hanke and his wife speak about the heart-wrenching incident in the video below, alongside other parents who have lost children in sleep-related deaths:
Sadly, Charlie’s story is not unique. Nearly 3,500 babies die in similar unintentional circumstances every year. Sleeping with a parent and stomach sleeping are leading risk factors for SIDS. Hanke urged parents to recognize that those risk factors apply even for those innocent naps on the couch or accidentally falling asleep while nursing in the middle the night.
“As a father and pediatrician I want parents to know that their baby is safest following the AAP safe sleep recommendations, Hanke said. “Spreading this message has become my life mission.”
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In an effort to prevent other families from living the same nightmare, Hanke and his wife, Maura, started Charlie’s Kids Foundation on what would have been Charlie’s first birthday. As Maura’s college roommate and dear friend, I was lucky enough to participate in that discussion and help form Charlie’s Kids’ mission from the very beginning.
With unique backgrounds—Sam, a pediatric cardiologist and Maura, a kindergarten teacher—decided to use children’s books as the vehicle to teach parents the safe sleep message.
The couple collaborated with pediatrician and author Dr. John Hutton and illustrator Leah Busch to create the first-ever children’s bedtime book to tackle safe sleep, “Sleep Baby Safe and Snug.”
Based on the AAP’s safe sleep recommendations, the story teaches caregivers what to do and what not to do when putting a baby to sleep. One line gives a nod to the new recommendations to room-share, but not bed-share: “Mom, dad, teddy bear. You’ll sleep soundly over there.”
In addition to the rhythmic, soothing prose and beautiful illustrations, the back cover features a list of the “dos and don’ts” for safe sleep.
In a little over three years, the 100 percent volunteer organization has partnered with hospitals, doctors, nurses, community health organizations and state health departments in 48 states. Together with these partners, Charlie’s Kids has distributed almost 1.5 million copies of “Sleep Baby Safe and Snug“ in English and in Spanish.
As Hanke said at the conference, he and Maura continue to share their story to give a voice to Charlie and to the thousands of babies who die suddenly and unexpectedly each year.
“I am here as proof that it can happen to anyone, even a pediatrician,” he said. “We know practicing safe sleep is hard. But, we have to be vigilant. We need to start adopting the mentality that safe sleep is not negotiable. We cannot emphasize enough that practicing safe sleep for every sleep is as important as buckling your child in a car seat for every drive.”
The AAP recommends infants share their parents’ bedroom—but not their bed—for at least the first six months of life and ideally for the first year.
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In addition, the AAP continues to remind parents that babies should be placed on their backs to sleep on a firm mattress in a crib or bassinet. There should be no soft bedding of any kind including, bumpers, blankets, pillows or toys.
For a complete list of the updated guidelines, click here.