School of Public Health

Speak Out: How to Use Media Influence to Promote Safe Sleep

October 2018
Author: Malka Main

changing media portrayals of infant safe sleep

Organizations are using the same popular media and manufacturer advertisements that portray unsafe sleep to reverse course and promote positive infant sleep practices. Source: Charlie's Kids.

Parents tuck infants beneath decorative blankets in crib commercials, lie them belly-down with blank-faced teddy bears in television shows, and artfully snuggle them into soft fluffy bedscapes across Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. Popular media and advertisements set the standard for what “looks normal” to healthcare consumers—repeated exposure to imagery can shape people's beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.1-5 Current media messaging and advertising contradict and overpower public health campaigns and medical advice on infant safe sleep practices. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) acknowledged this powerful influence in the 2016 update to safe sleep reccomendations and called for media and advertising to adhere to safe sleep guidelines.7

Alison Jacobson, Executive Director of First Candle, an organization that works to reduce Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID), says the problem is that most people are just not informed about safe sleep. “The other side of what we do [at First Candle] is bereavement support,” she explains. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ll talk to parents who said ‘no one ever told us…I just didn’t know’ and especially when it comes to having blankets or stuffed animals in the crib. Because you always see a picture of a blanket in a crib.”

Most of the images of infants on well-known stock photography websites depict unsafe sleep, and 5 out of every 10 show a loose blanket in the crib.8  Even the news coverage of the AAP reccomendations used photos of infants sleeping unsafely 95% of the time.9


But organizations and individuals across the country are focused on changing media standards and promoting infant safe sleep practices. The New Jersey Department of Health held a safe sleep art contest in middle schools to educate future caregivers, winners had their designs transferred to tote bags for new mothers.8 On social media there are contests for infant safe sleep photos, and hashtags that call attention to images that don't follow safe sleep guidelines: #ShowSafeSleep and  #AloneBackCrib.

At Charlie’s Kids—a volunteer-run SIDS awareness foundation, social media expert Betsy McCormack uses Twitter to call out portrayals of infant sleep, positive or negative. When Grey’s Anatomy incorporated SIDS and parental grief into a recent storyline, she tweeted a congratulations. But when a character on a television show puts their baby in an unsafe sleeping environment, McCormack will tag the actors, the producers, and even the network in a tweet to gently explain the ABCs of safe sleep.

When she tweeted Keurig that they showed an infant sleeping unsafely in their commercial advertising coffee pods to the sleepless parents of newborns, the company tweeted back gratefully with a link to a corrected commercial.

“We have to scream at the top of our lungs ‘this is not a safe sleep environment!’ says Jacobson, who is also a spokesperson and blogger at The Safety Mom. “Because it’s not going to get out otherwise--that’s why we need an army.”

Safe Sleep Guardians are companies that promote infant safe sleep in ads


Jacobson recently revived a media program originally developed through NAPPSS. Now called Safe Sleep Guardians, the program works with brands, companies, bloggers, and photographers who agree to only show AAP-compliant images on their websites, social media channels, and in their advertising.

In return, First Candle provides them with a digital Safe Sleep badge and acknowledges their commitment in social media promotions. The program has seven Safe Sleep Guardians with five more currently in process. One of Jacobson’s long term goals with the program is to recruit a stock photography company who will agree to follow safe sleep guidelines.

“There has been a slight reduction in accidental suffocation deaths in infants," says Jacobson, encouraged by the recently released statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, out of every 100,000 live births, 23 infants died due to accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed (ASSB), but by the next year that number had dropped to twenty-one.10 "So we are seeing a difference. We are moving the needle. But we need to keep educating.”


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  9. Pallavi Kamra & Michael B. Pitt (2018): Sleeping on the job: unsafe infant sleep environments depicted in the news coverage of the 2016 AAP safe sleep recommendations, Journal of Communication in Healthcare, DOI: 10.1080/17538068.2018.1475538
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. SUID and SIDS, 2015-2016 Data and Statistics.