Abu Dhabi: The use of soft cushioning material besides sleep practices like sharing bed space and allowing infants to sleep on their stomach and side are some of the chief causes of sudden infant deaths in the UAE, a leading doctor in the capital said yesterday.

According to a study conducted by experts in Al Ain in 2008, 67 per cent of parents use soft objects and bed spreads hoping to make the bed comfortable for babies, 37 per cent share bed space with infants, and 50 per cent allow babies to sleep on their side and stomach, all of which could cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Sids), warned Dr Edward E. Lawson, chief of the division of neonatology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Centre in the United States.

"To avoid Sids, parents of infants should allow their infants to sleep on an unshared, firm, unobstructed surface without fluffy objects and coverlets. They should also leave their babies' heads uncovered and place the child's crib in the parents' room for supervision," said Dr Lawson.

Sids is the sudden, unexpected death of an infant without any other pathological explanations and congenital anomalies. While genetic reasons and cardiac conditions could cause Sids, a number of risk factors can be easily controlled by parents to prevent sudden death of their babies.

Preventive steps

Dr Lawson stressed upon letting infants sleep on their backs as one of the most useful strategies to prevent Sids.

"When children sleep on their backs on a firm, unshared mattress, they breathe easily and are least prone to Sids. Of course, the child must also be protected from getting entangled with sheets, blankets and other devices, and must not share bed space at least until 14 weeks of age because this increases the risk of Sids ten-fold," the doctor said.

He also warned that covering children in too many sheets, or covering their heads, caused heat to accumulate and could result in death.

"Maternal smoking is also a huge risk factor. This is however very uncommon in the UAE as only 0.42 per cent of mothers smoke, which is indeed impressive," Dr Lawson added.

He also recommended using a pacifier before sleeping, and allowing babies "tummy time" when awake, to prevent other complications unrelated to Sids.

"If parents are vigilant, and educate their child care nurses about proper practices, the risk factors that cause Sids can easily be reduced," Dr Lawson said.