Robert Redford talks about son’s death from SIDS

In an article entitled Robert Redford, Unedited in this month’s AARP magazine, the Academy Award-winning actor, film director, producer, environmentalist, philanthropist, and founder of the Sundance Film Festival opens a window onto the experiences that have shaped him. The wide ranging interview the now 75-year-old talks about everything: his childhood in Santa Monica, California,  wanting to be an artist while living in Europe, moving from acting to directing, and the establishment of the Sundance Institute. One of the more poignant topics he discusses is the loss of his son at the age of 5 months of SIDS:

“It was really hard,” Redford says. “We were very young. I had my first theater job, which didn’t pay much. We didn’t know anything about SIDS, so the only thing you think is that you’ve done something wrong. As a parent, you tend to blame yourself. That creates a scar that probably never completely heals.”

What is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)?
SIDS is the sudden, unexplained death of an infant younger than one year old. It is the leading cause of death in children between one month and one year of age.  Most SIDS deaths happen when babies are between 2 months and 4 months of age. Despite years of scientific research, exactly why SIDS occurs remains elusive. Many experts believe multiple factors are involved, such as differences in the brain that make them vulnerable to sudden death during infancy. Studies of SIDS victims reveal abnormalities in a portion of the brain that controls most of the baby’s major bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, temperature and the ability to wake from sleep. This abnormality may make a baby  unable to cope with challenges in their environment that a healthy baby would be able to overcome. These challenges include tummy sleeping, bed sharing, use of soft bedding, overheating and tobacco exposure.

What groups are most at risk for SIDS?

  • Babies who are placed to sleep on their stomachs or sides are at higher risk for SIDS than babies who are placed on their backs to sleep.
  • African American babies are more than two times as likely to die of SIDS as white babies.
  • American Indian/Alaska Native babies are nearly three times as likely to die of SIDS as white babies.

How can I reduce the SIDS risk?
Health care providers don’t know what exactly causes SIDS, but they do know certain things can help reduce the risk of SIDS:

  • Always place babies on their backs to sleep – Babies who sleep on their backs are less likely to die of SIDS than babies who sleep on their stomachs or sides.  Placing your baby on his or her back to sleep is the number one way to reduce the risk of SIDS.
  • Use the back sleep position every time – Babies who usually sleep on their backs but who are then placed on their stomachs, like for a nap, are at very high risk for SIDS.  So it is important for babies to sleep on their backs every time, for naps and at night.
  • Place your baby on a firm sleep surface, such as a safety-approved* crib mattress covered with a fitted sheet – Never place a baby to sleep on a pillow, quilt, sheepskin, or other soft surface.
  • Keep soft objects, toys, and loose bedding out of your baby’s sleep area – Don’t use pillows, blankets, quilts, sheepskins, or pillow-like bumpers in your baby’s sleep area.  Keep all items away from the baby’s face.
  • Avoid letting your baby overheat during sleep – Dress your baby in light sleep clothing and keep the room at a temperature that is comfortable for an adult.
  • Think about using a clean, dry pacifier when placing your baby down to sleep, but don’t force the baby to take it.  (If you’re breastfeeding, wait until your child is 1 month old, or is used to breastfeeding before using a pacifier.)
Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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