In 1991, a baby girl named Haley Schmid died of SIDS. In the two decades since dimpled and dark-haired Haley was found not breathing, her death has sparked a quiet revolution in what babies wear to bed.
Haley died asleep on her tummy at eight weeks old, shortly before the national Back to Sleep campaign kicked off. The premise of that initiative? To educate parents to put babies to bed on their backs to slash the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
Life-changing events often cause people to alter their course, and such was the case with Haley’s dad, Bill Schmid, who became determined to help reduce the number of SIDS deaths. “If there was any chance I could prevent this from happening to other babies, I had to do it,” he says.
A mechanical engineer by training, he developed a product that, 10 years later, has become a ubiquitous commodity available pretty much everywhere baby products are sold: the Halo SleepSack. The soft, sleeveless zip-up bags that replace blankets — which can potentially trap babies — come embroidered with airplanes and toy cars, ladybugs and teddy bears. There are branded SleepSacks sold by Pottery Barn and a Disney collection featuring Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse and the Disney princesses.
Now hospitals are getting in on the glam, with some slapping their logo on the garments and sending new moms home with a SleepSack instead of the usual pink-and blue-striped flannel receiving blankets or diaper bags stuffed with free formula. More than 800 U.S. hospitals either gift the pouches or use them to demonstrate safe sleep techniques to new parents, now reaching 1 in 4 newborns in this country. “We can’t tell parents not to use blankets when all they see us do in hospitals is use blankets,” says Schmid. “The message we are sending has to be consistent.”
The Back to Sleep campaign has met with success: today, SIDS causes just 0.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 1.5 deaths per 1,000 in the 1970s and ’80s. But 2,500 U.S. newborns still die of SIDS each year. Experts speculate that may be because while tummy-sleeping is down, bed sharing — which has been associated with SIDS — is up. In March, I wrote about research that looked at why these babies are still dying.
Risk factors for SIDS include being born prematurely, being male and being exposed prenatally to alcohol or cigarettes; after birth, parents can unwittingly pile on other risk factors, such as overbundling baby or tucking him in for the night with a cozy quilt…
[D]espite the prevailing message of Back to Sleep, 30% of babies are still being put to bed on their bellies. “We still have a lot of work to do,” says Henry Krous, a pediatric pathologist and director of the San Diego SIDS Research Project at Rady Children’s Hospital. “The problem isn’t solved yet.”
Around 1994, when Schmid decided to focus full-time on SIDS products, he came across a study from the Netherlands speculating about why that country’s SIDS rate was so low. Almost all Dutch babies slept on their backs, according to the research, but they also snoozed in sleeveless sleeping bags — a finding that falls in line with advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics against placing fluffy bedding of any kind in cribs.
The Dutch researchers also believed that the bags themselves delayed by a few weeks babies’ ability to roll onto their stomachs, meaning that many infants would end up missing the peak window of vulnerability to SIDS — two to four months of age. Haley died at eight weeks.
The SleepSack alone won’t end SIDS deaths, of course. Nor was it the first of Schmid’s proposed SIDS solutions. He also invented a ventilated mattress with an internal fan that circulated air through the sleep surface to minimize the rebreathing of carbon dioxide, which has been implicated in SIDS deaths. The product bombed; it was too high-tech.
The SleepSack, on the other hand, which Schmid introduced to the U.S. in the early 2000s, is decidedly low-tech — and consumer friendly. Schmid uses cozy fabrics like microfleece and has added cotton and organic cotton versions to appeal to a wide subset of parents; a basic SleepSack sells for $19.95.
The original company Schmid launched was called Haley Inc. As it grew, the name evolved to “Halo,” which still incorporated the Schmids’ daughter’s name but also evoked an celestial reference. “We definitely had some guardian angels looking over this,” he says.