1982 started with my parents and older brother, Cameron, welcoming my brother, Graham, to the family. Little did my parents know every parent’s worst nightmare was about to come true, just a few short months later – they would have to bury their baby.
The Fateful Day
Only July 5, 1982, my family, aunt, and uncle were headed back to Michigan from a family reunion in Washington D.C. During a stop for food, my aunt and uncle took my brother Cameron in to get a table while my parents stayed behind to change Graham’s diaper. All of a sudden, he turned white, his arms fell gently to the sides of his face, and his head turned to the side. Despite the best efforts to revive him, he had passed away.
SIDS is an acronym for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, defined as the unexpected death of an otherwise healthy infant under the age of 1 year. 3,600 babies die each year in the U.S. from SIDS (according to cdc.gov) Many people believe SIDS and crib death are synonymous, but they are not. Often, babies do die in their sleep, in or around their sleeping area, but not all – as was the case with my brother.
People also believe SIDS is preventable, but it is not. Some cases are due to accidental suffocation, which can be largely prevented, but in other cases, there is an underlying, undiagnosed medical condition. Though my parents never knew the true cause of death in my brother, heart arrhythmia, or defect was suspected as the culprit.
Reduce the Risk of SIDS
There are ways to significantly reduce the risk of SIDS. This link is the detailed list of recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), but here are the highlights:
“A” ALONE. Baby should sleep alone, without pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, crib bumpers, baby positioners (like a Dock-a-Tot), or any other objects.
“B” BACK. Always put baby to sleep on their back for every sleep, for the first year of life. If they roll to their side or tummy independently, that’s ok! But they should start on their back.
“C” CRIB. Babies should sleep in their own sleep area (crib or bassinet) for at least the first 4 months of life – no bed-sharing, Dock-a-Tots, swings/bouncers, couch/chair or even parent’s arms. Cribs should have a firm mattress (to prevent rebreathing pockets) with less than two-finger widths of space between the mattress and crib. It is recommended the baby’s sleep area be in the parent’s room for at least 6 months, but ideally up to 1 year of age.
Other helpful tips are having a fan for air circulation and introducing a pacifier. Dress baby as you would for bed, plus an extra layer, to avoid overheating.
No parent thinks their child will suffocate accidentally. No parent thinks their child will die unexpectedly. My mentality is always “better safe than sorry.”
I am the rainbow baby that was born less than a year and a half after my brother’s passing. My parents were, understandably, very nervous about welcoming another child into the world after it was turned upside down. They held their marriage together (despite the fact 90% of marriages end following the death of a child), leaned into the Catholic faith, moved to a new house, and added a girl to the mix.
A pneumogram is an overnight test that measures heart rate, breathing rate, and pulse oximetry (oxygen in the blood). Apnea is when you take pauses in breathing during sleep. It is generally considered normal for a baby to have this apnea pauses for about 3% of the time they sleep. For SIDS siblings, they allow up to 5%. I measured off the charts; I wasn’t breathing 50% of the time I was sleeping! Following my test, the doctor asked, “How fast can you get your daughter to the hospital?”
For the first year and a half of my life, I slept connected to an apnea monitor. Trained in infant CPR and instructed what to do if my monitor alerted to low oxygen levels or low/high heart rate, my parents monitored and prayed. Thankfully, I never had an issue and eventually outgrew my infant apnea.
My younger brother had normal results but still used a monitor. That is, until he learned he could pull the leads off and the alarm would cause my parents to come rushing in to pay him attention!
We monitored my son, Graham, using an apnea monitor from the hospital, as well as an Owlet. He had periodic or immature breathing, common in preemies. The pauses in his breathing weren’t long enough to be diagnosed as true apnea but still caused us great worry. My daughter now wears the Owlet every night. The Owlet gave us so much peace of mind – I don’t think I could have slept without it! For us, it was worth the investment.
A tribute to my brother, Graham Michael
I always wondered what my brother Graham would have been like. Looking at his chubby baby pictures stir up all kinds of feelings. He was only 3 months old when he died. Who would he have grown to be? What accomplishments would he have achieved? Would we have gotten along?
Over 30 some years after my brother’s death, it seemed like the ultimate tribute to name our son Graham. There was some concern that maybe naming him Graham was “bad luck” or that it would be too sad for my parents, but so far he is 2 years old & thriving. My parents are beyond touched by the name. I’d like to think Graham Michael is smiling down on Graham Curtiss and the rest of our family, honored and loved.
Baby 1st Network is the SIDS organization in Ohio for support in SIDS related deaths.