Science and Tech


Dozens of infant deaths linked to sleep and nursing pillows

The Maternal and Child Health Journal estimates between 2004 and 2015, 171 infants died after u-shaped pillows were found in their sleep environment.
Posted at 2:15 PM, Aug 15, 2023

Nursing pillows have long been used to help breastfeeding moms find a comfortable position while nursing their babies. The u-shaped pillows help prop the baby up, which can help them latch and also help support a mother’s arms, making the entire process easier.

But the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPCS) reports dozens of infants have died after parents let them either sleep on or near the pillows.

Scripps News Tampa

It's nothing short of amazing when you bring a new baby into the world, but all parents know the immediate concerns that go with it. Getting them to sleep through the night is a major one.

"If you are having trouble getting them to sleep, even swaddled, even with white noise, even with blackout blinds — get help. Ask for help," said Abby Morris, a certified infant and child sleep expert. "There are people around. There’s support, there's a village."

Morris is a resource for parents and their children from newborn until age 5. She points out that nothing is more important than safe sleep.

3,400 infants die each year due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also known as SIDS, according to the CDC.

The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association estimates 1.34 million new nursing pillows are sold each year. 

The Maternal and Child Health Journal estimates that between 2004 and 2015 in the U.S., 171 infants died after u-shaped pillows were found in their sleep environment. 82% of those infants had been placed to sleep on top of or with the pillow around their heads. 

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"Back is best, alone in the crib or bassinet, never with a pillow. Do not use it to prop baby up," Morris said. "Very often, colic or [acid] reflux babies, pediatricians in the past would have advised use a wedge, use a pillow, use a nursing pillow, prop baby up, it will help with the digestion. It is so dangerous."

Her advice comes as CPCS announced its plans to set safety standards on u-shaped nursing pillows. Morris said it stems from miseducation.

"If people aren't going to educate themselves on it, there needs to be a governing body stepping in saying, 'Hey, we're gonna prevent it if nothing is being done otherwise,'" she said.

The Breastfeeding Infant Development Support Alliance is representing many of the current manufacturers of u-shaped nursing pillows. On its website, it claims CPCS wants to ban the pillow, which they say could negatively impact a mother’s choice to breastfeed.

"Nursing is hard enough, and getting baby in the right position to latch, getting them to hold in the right position, even using a lactation consultant, they advise to use those nursing pillows," Morris said. "We don't want those nursing aides all to be pulled completely because it makes nursing even more difficult than it already is, and it can pose a threat to nursing itself."

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During a conference at the end of July, the agency's chair made it clear the new rules would not be a ban on nursing pillows but efforts to "ensure that nursing pillows don't pose a suffocation hazard, while still meeting the needs of breastfeeding parents."

Morris does warn it's equally important for mothers to be awake and aware while using the pillows for feeding.

"Very often at newborn age, we are bringing the baby to our bed, feeding, and then putting baby back safely in the bassinet," she said. "However, when you're going through this every three hours, you're not always going to be as alert when you're going to be feeding, and so this can happen with a regular pillow."

She said to have a spouse or friend check in on you through the night as you breastfeed. Also, set an alarm on your phone to alert you. Get up and sit in a rocking chair to feed instead of your bed, or keep cold water and snacks on a nightstand to help keep you awake.

This story was originally published by Heather Leigh at Scripps News Tampa.