Talking with Grandparents, Babysitters about Practicing Safe Sleep With Your Baby
While these conversations can be tough, it’s important to break through misconceptions for the safety of your child.
By Jean Yaeger
Before leaving your infant with a friend, grandparent, other relative or babysitter, it’s important to make sure the caregiver practices the basics of safe sleep. It might feel like an awkward or unnecessary topic to bring up with your mother or mother-in-law or favorite auntie who provides free babysitting. But not all caregivers are aware of the safe sleep practices backed by medical evidence, as they have been updated over the years.
At nighttime and every nap – whether at home or away, with parents or sitters -- the safest way for infants to sleep is:
- on their backs
- alone (no co-sleeping)
- in a crib or bassinet with a firm and flat mattress
- without pillows, sheets, blankets, toys or other objects
More than 3,500 sleep-related infant deaths occur annually in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2022, 25 infants at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth died from cardiac arrest, respiratory failure or other trauma due to unsafe sleep incidents that happened at their homes. A majority of those deaths involved co-sleeping with at least one parent or caregiver who awoke to find the child unresponsive.
So far in 2023, Cook Children’s has seen nine deaths due to unsafe sleep conditions, including co-sleeping with adults. Suffocation can occur if someone rolls onto the baby or if bedding covers the baby’s face.
Juan Cocjin, M.D., of Cook Children’s Neighborhood Clinic – Renaissance, said grandparents shouldn’t assume that it’s OK for babies to bed-share, even if that’s the norm the grandparents are used to or have done in the past.
It’s a sensitive topic because sleep customs get passed down in families from one generation to the next, Dr. Cocjin says.
Some of his patients are being raised by grandparents or even great-grandparents. He occasionally hears a caregiver say their baby shares a bed with others in the family. While these conversations can be tough, it’s important to break through misconceptions that co-sleeping is safe.
“I share with them the hazards of co-sleeping,” Dr. Cocjin said.
Creating a safe sleep environment for your baby takes consistent practice until it becomes automatic. Dr. Cocjin urges grandparents to seek out reputable sources of information and have an open mind about what the experts say. As he puts it: You can’t stick with unsafe habits hoping “maybe it’ll be OK.’’
Cook Children’s social worker Lorie Palacios, LMSW spreads the word in English and Spanish as a Safe Baby Sleep Council member, a coalition of partners including the Cook Children’s Center for Community Health. She shares safe sleep education at injury prevention at community events.
Palacios emphasizes the importance of sharing your safe sleep plan with everyone who cares for your baby. If mom and dad don’t live together, for instance, they should communicate about their baby’s sleeping arrangements in both residences. Ask if your baby’s caregivers have a crib or bassinet.
“We want to make sure that conversation is happening,” she said. Transparency and communication are key.
Palacios pointed out that licensed day care facilities in Texas are required to follow protocols for safe sleep. That’s not the case when a friend or family member volunteers to watch your infant. And if a parent feels indebted to the babysitter, she said, they might worry that they’ll be seen as critical or questioning the sitter’s abilities if they speak up about safe sleep.
“If you’re dependent on a family member, especially a grandparent, that’s a very difficult conversation to have with someone you love and trust,” Palacios said.
When Palacios’ children were little, their grandmother kept them while Palacios worked. One day she found her 3-month-old daughter sleeping on the grandmother’s bed with a pillow and blanket.
“I had a playpen. I had a bassinet,” Palacios said. “All these things were available, but those were not the things that my mom used when she was raising her babies. To her, the bassinet felt awkward.”
Prior to that day, Palacios said she and her mom had only touched on the topic of safe sleep.
“The toughest thing is this idea that you’re questioning your elders,” she said. “I wasn’t really pushy because I wanted to maintain my respect.”
After that day, Palacios clearly and specifically told her mom her expectations for the baby’s sleep environment going forward. The words weren’t easy to say; but her mom respected Palacios’ wishes.
When you rely on a network of relatives or neighbors to help care for your baby, she said, you need to stand your ground on matters of safety. A caregiver might mean well but be misguided.
“It definitely takes a little more courage to find your voice when you’re part of a big village,” Palacios said.
More about safe sleep from Cook Children’s Checkup Newsroom:
Safe Baby Sleep
The Center for Community Health, led by Cook Children’s has collaborated on a campaign for infant sleep awareness since 2015. Working with community partners like the Fort Worth Fire Department and Tarrant Baptist Association, the Safe Baby Sleep Council distributes pack ‘n plays to families that need a place for their baby to sleep. For videos, educational resources and more information, go to Safe Baby Sleep (centerforchildrenshealth.org)