Slings and Suffocation: The Hazards of Babywearing

February 22, 2006

I just got an e-mail message from a dear friend who happens to be a pediatrician who specializes in neonatal intensive care. It’s about the potential risks of baby slings, and I think it’s worth sharing:

I was reviewing your baby registry and I wanted to mention a potential hazard.  When infants are very small and breasts are enlarged with zeal at finally fulfilling their genetic potential, suffocation can occasionally result. I’m not joking. They are used successfully the world over, but it happens that I have resuscitated and cared for two infants smothered to the point of cardiac arrest when their mothers were distracted and wearing a sling. Little babies don’t have much fight in them, so they don’t struggle as much as you would think. Maybe us westerners don’t know how to do it right, or maybe we are more likely to be sucked into something else while wearing our babies.

The Baby Bjorn is well-designed by pocket-protector-wearing Swedes and is very safe and comfortable. This might be a place for safety over style. When the baby is older (say > 4 months) and has a little more strength and fight in her, the sling is a reasonable option (not to mention more politically correct at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.)

I am surprised that more isn’t known about this. The people who use slings aren’t the litigious type, I guess. It surprises me that the American public has so wholeheartedly embraced a product that says in the instructions: “Make sure that your baby can breathe freely.” Again, increases in head control and trunk strength and general will-to-live decrease the danger considerably after the first few months of life.

ADDENDUM: In a follow-up message, Dr. Kate had this to say:

You might point out that both of the near deaths (with subsequent neuro-devastation) that I have seen involved children < 2 months of age and occurred during breastfeeding. There is a published case report of a similar instance. The authors of this paper speculated that the sling allowed the mother to focus on other things (she was grocery shopping) and obscured her view of the baby’s head.

Perhaps the bottom line is that you shouldn’t breastfeed your child in a sling while you are doing something else.

That sounds like solid advice to me. Lord knows I’m a multitasker, but it does seem wise to give one’s full attention to the infant one is both feeding and wearing.