Teen moms trust their own feelings, rather than medical advice, on this safety topic

Posted April 26

Teen moms say they often trust their own instincts even though they know that expert advice says to do the opposite when it comes to sleep safety for babies, according to a small study just published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

At risk is nothing less than a baby's life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that each year, 3,500 babies under a year old die for no apparent reason. Sudden, unexpected infant death is the most common cause of death for babies from a month old to a year old and the risk is higher when mothers are younger than 20, although experts do not know why, according to a news release on the study.

"We learned that almost all teenage mothers were already aware of the recommendations," said Dr. Michelle Caraballo of UT Southwestern Medical Center, who led the study of 43 teen moms in Colorado. "Yet they were making deliberate decisions to practice unsafe behaviors."

Pediatric experts have issued strong recommendations against co-sleeping and against having blankets and pillow where babies sleep, because they can become trapped or smothered. Even so, the study shows the young moms do what they want.

"Reasons for nonadherence to recommendations included beliefs that babies are safest and sleep more/better in bed with them, that bedsharing is a bonding opportunity and that bedsharing is easier than using a separate sleep space. The most common justifications for blankets were infant comfort and concern that babies were cold," the study said. "Participants' decision-making was often influenced by their own mothers, with whom they often resided. Participants felt that their instincts trumped professional advice, even when in direct contradiction to safe sleep recommendations."

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have teamed up to offer a 12-minute video called "Safe Sleep for Babies."

Meanwhile, the researchers said they hope that experts can come up with better approaches to convince new young moms to set their instincts on this topic aside in favor of proven safety techniques.

They noted that "although first-time mothers typically feel timid and uncertain, the teenage mothers in the focus group displayed an almost cavalier confidence in their ability to decide the right thing to do regarding sleep practices."

Caraballo told NPR's Laurel Dalrymple that researchers need to figure out who influences teens, from relatives and friends, and get the message of safe infant sleeping to them. "There is a lot of groupthink going on. They have a lot of influence over each other. Like anything in adolescence, there is a need to feel like they belong."

Dalrymple wrote that "Grandmothers might be giving outdated information to their daughters simply because they don't know about updated safe-sleep procedures. Furthermore, the teens in the study said they tended to rely on health professionals for medical concerns, but on family and friends for parenting advice."

"If the teen gets one story from the doctor and one from Mom, who lives in the home, who are they more likely to believe?" Caraballo asked.

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