Despite an awareness of recommended safe-sleeping practices for their babies, many teen mothers do not follow them, a new study reported. The research, published April 21 in the Journal of Pediatrics, found that young mothers felt they knew better than health professionals when it came to how their infants sleep.
“We learned that almost all teenage mothers were already aware of the [sleep] recommendations, yet they are making deliberate decisions to practice unsafe behaviors,” study author Michelle Caraballo, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center, said in a journal news release.
The concern is that the “unsafe behaviors” put the infants at risk for sudden unexpected infant death (SUID), which includes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and claims about 3,500 babies up to a year old in the U.S. annually. About a quarter of those tragic incidents result from accidental suffocation or strangulation in bed, and there is an increased risk of SIDS associated with mothers who are less than 20 years old.
To get a better handle on teenage mothers’ information sources and factors motivating their decision-making about their babies’ sleep practices, Caraballo and her colleagues recruited 43 teenage moms with babies aged 2 months to 21 months to participate in seven focus groups. The sessions were held in high school daycare centers in urban Colorado, with five to nine participants in each group.
Study findings showed that most of the mothers were aware of SIDS and recommendations against such practices as co-sleeping and the use of soft bedding, blankets and pillows in the baby’s sleeping area. Despite this knowledge, many chose to allow their babies to sleep in their bed, and the use of pillows and blankets was common.
The most prevalent reason teen moms offered for co-sleeping was their belief that the child seemed to sleep better and was safer when in bed with them. In addition, many mothers used blankets because they thought their baby would be cold and uncomfortable without one.
The researchers also found that all of the teenage mothers thought their instincts were better than professional opinions, even when those instincts directly contradicted proven data on infant sleep-safety. Many of the teens exhibited an almost cavalier confidence in their parenting knowledge and ability, asserting that they knew how to best care for their babies and are as good as, or better, mothers than older women.
Addressing this air of confidence, Caraballo told NPR, “Adolescence in general is associated with immaturity and impulsive, risk-taking behavior. They also feel very judged by the people around them, so they want to prove they can take care of their babies. I don’t know if they actually feel the confidence or just project that.”
And while Caraballo and the research team have called for new approaches to getting the word out about adhering to infant safe-sleeping practices, they acknowledge it will be difficult.
Many of the teens said they look to doctors for health concerns, but defer to family and friends when seeking parenting advice. They told the researchers when they got conflicting information they made decisions based on their own preferences.
In addition, many teenage mothers are still living with their mothers or grandmothers. Well-meaning family members may not be aware of the new safe-sleeping guidelines and reinforce unsafe sleeping practices.
“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 in an NPR interview. She noted that more research is needed to target the people – mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and friends – who are influential in a teen’s life.
“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,” Caraballo said.