Brenton Hittle died of SIDS in 2013. His mother now works to inform people of the importance of safe sleeping practices.

October is SIDS Awareness Month, and IU Health is spreading its message of how a safe sleeping environment and safe sleeping practices can help reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

According to information shared by IU Health, while the prevalence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in the United States has decreased by 50 percent, it remains the leading cause of death for U.S. infants 1 month to 1 year of age. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development highlights resources and research to help parents, caregivers and medical professionals reduce the risk of SIDS. The exact cause of SIDS remains unknown. In fact, researchers suspect multiple conditions may lead to SIDS.

Jen Hittle, a clinical risk management nurse at IU Health Arnett, knows too well the devastation of losing a child to SIDS.

“My journey started back in January of 2013,” Hittle said. “Our son, he was our fifth child, and he passed away from SIDS when he was six months and five days old. I had not been sick. I had a really uneventful six months, had kept up on shots, and he had seen a doctor like he should have. We dropped him off at the sitter of ours that morning before he passed. He was laid down for a nap. And then, when she went to check on him after that, he wasn’t breathing. They tried to bring him back and were not able to.

“My four children, husband and us left were devastated of course,” she continued. “We had this happy, healthy little guy for six months, and he just was gone, and we really didn’t have any answers. As we had to wait for the autopsy, toxicology reports, all of that, I kept thinking in my mind, ‘What did I miss? Surely something was wrong with this baby.’ What we found was that there was nothing wrong with him. So, they gave his cause of death SIDS.”

At that point in her career, Hittle had already worked in an intensive care unit for about 10 years.

“I have seen people stop breathing. I know how that works,” she said. “In my mind, I would not grasp that this healthy baby stopped breathing. I wanted to know why, so I reached out to SIDS researchers to help me understand. One of the things that I learned from them is that there have been fairly new studies done that SIDS is likely caused by a defect in the brain that you cannot tell outwardly if your baby has it. They look and act normal. This defect in their brain affects them when they are in unsafe sleep environments. So, they are at higher risk of dying of SIDS. That made me think, ‘Oh my gosh. There are things I could have done different.’

“Nobody wants to think that things they did as a parent caused your son’s death,” Hittle continued. “We don’t know for sure, and that is a really hard pill to swallow. But, to do better, learn from this and have meaning in his death, I started looking into what I could have done better as a parent with my babies. That is where safe sleep practices come into play. I was really surprised – having him as a fifth child – the little amount of knowledge I had about safe sleep. I never heard somebody tell a story in a way that really resonated with me to not lay them on their bellies or that type of thing.”

Hittle has shared her experience by speaking in child development classes and neonatal intensive care units. She preaches the “ABCs” of safe sleep.

“Put the baby Alone on their Back in a Crib, so they call those the ABCs of safe sleep,” she said. “There are a lot of people that feel that they can safely sleep with an infant. Actually, the weight of an adult’s arm on the chest of a baby can cause them to stop breathing within minutes. I thought that is really powerful to know. As we are sleeping, we are not in tune with where our body is. A lot of the deaths (of babies one month to one year of age) are related to unsafe sleeping practices. One of those is bed sharing. We want them alone, on their back, in a crib.

“I was very guilty before my son passed away of saying that my babies sleep so much more comfortably on their bellies,” Hittle added. “It is something that I wish I did differently because he was found asleep on his belly with his blanket near his face. That is how he slept. So, these things are super-important.”

Hittle added that families need to make those who help watch their baby aware that they abide by these safe sleep practices.

“Don’t ever assume that somebody knows these things,” she said. “It is foreign to some people.

“Another big things is to not smoke around the baby after they are born,” she added. “That actually increases the chance of dying of SIDS dramatically. Don’t overheat the baby. It is natural for parents to put lots of blankets in the crib, but they actually don’t need that. The part of their brain that is responsible for making their body warm or clod is not well developed. If you warm them up and make them hot, that can actually cause them to stop breathing. Babies do very well without a lot of blankets on.”

Citing the Indiana Department of Health, Hittle said that more babies die of unsafe sleep practices between zero and 1 than all children up to the age of 18 by motor vehicle accidents.

“To safe sleep is actually really hard,” Hittle said. “I get it. You are sleep deprived, getting up every couple hours trying to feed the baby. You have other responsibilities, and you are super-tired. To follow these when you are super-exhausted is hard, but it is worth it because we can’t tell if a baby has that defect. We just want to decrease the chance of anything happening to them.”

To summarize, Hittle says to remember the ABCs of sleep, no blankets, pacifiers are good, breastfeeding can reduce the risk by six times if you can do it for the six months, and smoking during pregnancy or around the baby drastically increases the risk.

“Safe sleep is hard, but it is worth it to help our babies get through to their first birthday,” she said.