Military families often have more parenting-related logistics to worry about than civilian families, such as consistent moves, deployments and rotating child care that can throw off schedules for parents and their children. But experts say it's important for infants to have a safe sleep environment, no matter where you are or what you're dealing with.
This year, the American Academy of Pediatrics published new guidance on safe sleeping environments for infants to decrease the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, and other unexpected infant deaths. The five recommendations are as follows:
- Always have your baby on their back to sleep.
- Use a firm, flat surface for sleeping such as a crib or bassinet.
- Keep soft objects and loose bedding out of the sleep area, including bumper pads and pillows.
- Room share, but don't bed share, to decrease the risk of suffocation or other infant-related deaths.
- Don't let your baby get overheated. Watch for flushed skin/cheeks, sweating or a hot chest.
Shannon Best, a licensed marriage and family therapist with the DOD's Family Advocacy Program, said the "ABCs" of the recommendations couldn't be stressed enough.
"All infants should be sleeping in their own sleep space — not bed sharing or surface sharing, such as on a couch or any other location — but Alone in their own sleep space on their Backs," she said. "And then in a Crib or another approved firm, flat surface that's free from other suffocation hazards like bumpers, blankets, toys, stuffed animals, that sort of thing."
Another good tip offered by the AAP to prevent SIDS included offering your baby a pacifier to sleep once he or she is a few weeks old and breastfeeding has been established.
For Military Families, Planning Is Key
One aspect unique to military life is the permanent change of station move. These moves happen every few years and require families to uproot their lives and go wherever their service member has been called to serve.
The long-distance travel that's often required with those moves can complicate an infant's sleep routine. Best, who is a military mom herself, said she understands the frustrations of living in temporary housing and not having friends or family around to help. She said when families are in the middle of a PCS, the best thing to do is plan ahead.
"Be planning for that safe sleep environment for any small children and infants to ensure that … they have their separate sleep space that's safe for them," she said. "Typically, parents think, 'OK, I'll just put the baby in the bed with me.' But that's the danger. At hotels, you often can reserve cribs, or they have a portable crib."
Military families preparing for a move can find a "Plan My Move" checklist on Military OneSource to help. Best said there's a questionnaire on it based on a family's needs.
"For example, if they indicate that they have a child under the age of 6, one of the items that will automatically populate on that checklist is a safe sleep environment for infants," she said.
Best also suggested parents talk with their baby's other caretakers about safe sleep habits so those people are aware and prepared. Oftentimes, military families rely on friends and family to help them care for their baby, and those folks might try to offer conflicting recommendations.
"A grandparent might say, 'Well, I put you to sleep on your belly. You slept great, and you turned out fine.' Which is nice, but reality is that's a significant risk," Best said, reminding families to always remember the current guidance, despite what others might tell them.
She said military families also have to make sure they're communicating with anyone who's unfamiliar to their child, such as a neighbor or a new caregiver in the town they just moved to, just to make sure everyone is on the same page.
"When you move to a new area, it's just making sure to ask them and remind them, 'Hey, so for every nap and at nighttime, we put the baby down to sleep on their backs,'" Best said.
Safe Sleep Resources for Military Families
The Family Advocacy Program launched a new DOD-wide safe sleep campaign in the spring. On Military OneSource, parents can find updated articles and information on the new recommendations, including the following podcast on the subject:
The DOD New Parent Support Program also provides voluntary education and support for expectant parents or those with children through age 3. The services provide information about safe sleep environments, as well as prenatal health, infant care, nursing and breastfeeding, early child development, bonding with your baby and other means of parenting education. Best said those who are fostering or adopting can take part, too.
During fiscal year 2022, more than 50,000 families were served by the New Parent Support Program.
Through Military OneSource, parents can also participate in a MilParent Specialty Consultation. It's free, individualized, confidential support for expectant parents and parents of kids through age 5 that can help them develop a routine to solve sleep issues. Those seeking support from this program may include parents who have concerns, those who are separated from family support or are experiencing a spousal deployment, or single parents dealing with the challenges of serving in the military.