As the mother of a toddler, I was excited that the season premiere of Modern Family focused on characters Hayley and Dylan in their new roles as parents. The episode revolved around the exhausted pair attempting to put their twins to sleep, which I can relate to all too well.
But as a public health pediatrician, I found myself wincing at the missed opportunities to depict safe infant sleep in a show watched by more than 4.5 million people.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 3,500 babies die each year from sleep-related causes. Here in Philadelphia, the toll just between 2011 and 2017 was 227 babies — that’s equal to losing one kindergarten class every year. Many of these tragedies could have been prevented by following safe infant sleep practices.
Although Modern Family grandparents Phil and Claire were eager to help put the twins to sleep, they made some critical mistakes in not following safe sleep recommendations. While the babies looked cute and snug propped up on the sofa, the safest place for a baby to sleep is actually on a firm mattress — in either a crib or pack-and-play — according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And the crib should have nothing in it but the mattress and the baby. Toys, blankets, positioners, and bumpers are all suffocation hazards.
Later in the episode, we see the infants asleep in the arms of their sleeping parents on the sofa. But “co-sleeping” on a couch is especially dangerous due to the risk of the baby getting trapped and suffocating in the sofa cushions. In fact, nearly six out of 10 sleep-related deaths in Philadelphia occurred while co-sleeping.
The best safe sleep practice shown in the episode was when Hayley was singing the twins to sleep on their backs in bassinets. Decades of research have shown that placing babies to sleep on their backs reduces the risk of sleep-related deaths.
These safe sleep steps can be easily remembered as the ABCs of safe sleep: Babies should sleep Alone, on their Back, and in a Crib or pack-and-play, every time.
Philadelphia’s hospitals and pediatricians are doing a great job of promoting safe sleep. Safe Sleep Philly, our citywide campaign, is sharing the message, and free cribs and pack-and-plays are available for families who need them. But public health campaigns can do only so much when our favorite shows are displaying the exact behaviors we’re teaching people not to do. Depictions of family life on TV, in movies, magazines, and online can be good public health partners and promote safe sleep messages. By working together, we can ensure that more babies sleep safely and reach their first birthdays — starting with America’s favorite TV family.
For more information on safe sleep, visit: www.safesleepphilly.org or https://safetosleep.nichd.nih.gov/safesleepbasics/risk/reduce.
Stacey Kallem is a primary-care pediatrician and the director of the Division of Maternal, Child & Family Health at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.