Initiative Seeks to Educate, Reduce Infant Deaths

By CIRI descendant Kristin Helvey, Healthy Native Babies Project area consultant

A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2017-2018 issue of First Alaskans magazine.

For the past year, I have had the privilege to participate in an initiative called the Healthy Native Babies Project, part of the Safe to Sleep® public education campaign, to help raise awareness about infant safe sleep. As Tribal people, we are no strangers to higher-than-average rates of a laundry list of diseases and other health disparities. Among these are sleep-related deaths, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, which are a leading cause of infant death in Alaska between two months and 1 year of age.

Infant Sleep-Related Deaths in Alaska

Unfortunately, sleep-related infant deaths happen. They happen across geographies, ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. Thankfully, a lot has been learned about why SIDS and other sleep-related causes of infant death occur, and we know more now about how to reduce the risks.

Researchers have found that SIDS happens most often to infants between the first and fourth months after birth, and the vast majority (90 percent) of occurrences happen before a baby turns six months old.

SIDS is not caused by immunizations, choking or vomiting. SIDS is sudden and silent, and there isn’t one known cause.

Researchers explain SIDS with the “Triple Risk Theory,” which details three main factors that increase SIDS risk. None of these alone usually results in death, but when all three are experienced simultaneously, the risk of SIDS becomes very high.

Infant Vulnerability: Some babies may not be able to control their reflexes and basic bodily functions, like breathing, regulating body temperature and waking from sleep, as effectively as other babies.

Critical Development: During a baby’s first six months of life, there are many critical development periods that occur. These correspond to natural changes in how well s/he can regulate breathing, heart rate, waking and sleeping patterns, and body temperature.

Environmental Stressors: These include things like secondhand smoke exposure, bed sharing and respiratory infections.

While caregivers have little to no control over the first two risks, we have much control over the third risk. By reducing or eliminating external stressors in a baby’s environment, the balance may be tipped in favor of the baby’s survival.

Safe Sleep Best Practices

The following is a summary of safe sleep best practices for easy reference. For complete best practice information, visit

  • Back is best! Place baby on back for all sleep times. (If your baby has rolled from her/his back to his side or stomach on his own, s/he can be left in that position if s/he is already able to roll from tummy to back and back to tummy.)
  • Share your room, not your bed. Put baby to sleep in his/her own sleep area in the same room as parents/caregiver.
  • Ensure baby always has a sober caregiver.
  • Ensure a firm sleep surface. Avoid putting baby to sleep, or falling asleep with baby, on couches, chairs, mattress toppers and/or waterbeds.
  • Keep sleep area free of objects. Avoid blankets, crib bumpers, toys or other items in baby’s sleep space.
  • Reduce/eliminate baby’s exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid overheating. Dress baby in a maximum of one layer more than what adults are comfortable wearing.
  • Practice supervised “tummy time” when baby is awake. Placing baby on tummy to “play” strengthens head and neck muscles.

Getting Involved

It is simple to join the movement to reduce the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related causes of infant death in Alaska communities. Free safe sleep materials can be downloaded and/or ordered in bulk by visiting (scroll through each category for the American Indian/Alaska Native materials).

If you have questions or would like to get involved, contact Kristin directly at [email protected].