The Dangers of Tobacco Use: Daycare Staff and SIDS Risk

Removing cigarette smoke from a home can reduce the risk of SIDS by up to 80%. Infants and children can remain safe from tobacco smoke while in daycare by ensuring that all workers refrain from using tobacco products.

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It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, more commonly referred to as SIDS, is the leading cause of death among children ages one month to one year. While most envision this nightmare happening at home, many parents hear of their child’s passing while at work, their babies having passed while at daycare or another childcare facility.

While SIDS is no one’s fault, there may be ways to help keep babies safer while at daycare.

What is SIDS?

SIDS describes an event in which an infant under the age of one year dies unexpectedly and for seemingly no reason. An autopsy is performed and all known causes of death are ruled out. The deaths usually occur while the baby is sleeping. There are no warning signs and no symptoms.

Despite the name, SIDS is, in fact, not a syndrome at all, but the absence of one. When no explanation is found, those deaths are lumped together as “SIDS.”

While the cause of SIDS is not known, the most promising theory at the time of this writing is that babies who die of SIDS have immature brain stems in the area where serotonin is produced. Many have heard of serotonin in relation to mood, but it is also the neurotransmitter responsible for helping humans wake and breathe, according to SIDS America.

A normal person may have blood oxygen fluctuations throughout the night as they sleep. When this happens, the brain sends a surge of serotonin to wake that person up just enough so that they turn their head, take a deep breath of oxygen rich air, and then drift back off to sleep. Most people do this several times every night without even realizing it.

It is believed that in SIDS cases, this mechanism malfunctions. When blood oxygen levels get too low, their brains cannot produce or send the serotonin needed to wake them up. In severe cases of this, SIDS is the result.

Serotonin also helps regulate other aspects of heart rate and breathing.

Can SIDS be prevented?

Because the cause of sudden infant death is unknown, there is no known prevention. There are certain groups who seem to be at a marked increased risk, however. Babies who are exposed to cigarette smoke in particular are much more likely to succumb to SIDS. In fact, it is estimated that removing cigarette smoke from a home can reduce the risk of SIDS by up to 80%, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Additional risk factors may include becoming overheated, lack of air circulation in the room where baby is sleeping, and lack of breast feeding.

How Childcare Workers May be Putting Children at Risk

Most childcare workers love children and would never willingly put a child at risk. For this reason, daycares and other childcare facilities have strict policies on smoking inside the buildings. Parents don’t have to worry about smokers lighting up in the same room where their children sleep and play, but there is another danger that is poorly understood by most parents and caregivers: third-hand smoke.

Third-hand smoke is comprised of the smoke, nicotine, and tobacco residue left behind after someone smokes. Most people know that the smell of tobacco lingers long after the cigarette is snuffed out, but there is more than odor left behind. According to WebMD, thousands of toxic chemicals are contained in third-hand smoke, and the risks they post to human health are becoming more apparent.

While daycare workers are not allowed to smoke in or too close to buildings where children are kept, smoke residue can cling to their clothing and hair. As the person moves around the room, this residue can be emitted back into the air over and over again. While this may seem like a small amount of smoke, the Surgeon General warns that there is no level of cigarette smoke that is considered safe, especially for infants whose lungs are more fragile than an adult’s. If the same worker, or if multiple workers, take more than one smoke break, the process repeats itself over and over again. This can decrease a room’s air quality over time.

As more third-hand smoke enters the room, there is less fresh air available to the children inhabiting the space. Less fresh air means less available oxygen. In those infants who may already be vulnerable to SIDS, this increase in smoke residue, however minor, could prove detrimental.

Even for those babies who are not at risk, exposure to third-hand smoke may increase their risk of asthma, allergies, and other health complications.

Safe Sleep Practices

While the Healthy Child Care America ‘Back-to-Sleep’ campaign has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives, it’s not enough to prevent SIDS alone. Keeping babies safe not only requires proper sleep positioning and temperature, but also air that is as safe as possible. A well-ventilated space is a start. This can be accomplished through the use of fans or HVAC systems. Avoiding the dangers of smoke residue is also an important step childcare workers can take to keep babies safe while they are in their care.

Health Implications for Older Children

Babies and toddlers are the most at-risk group for the dangers of third-hand smoke, but older children can also suffer complications. Studies are showing that smoke residue is more harmful than previously thought. The chemicals contained within third-hand smoke are known to increase the risk of asthma and other breathing problems, as well as certain types of cancer.

The full scope of how dangerous third-hand smoke might be isn’t understood just yet, but the current information available makes it clear that it’s not worth the risk to children of any age.

What can be Done?

The only way to ensure all infants and children are safe from tobacco smoke while in a daycare facility is to ensure that all workers refrain from the use of tobacco products. There is no efficient and effective means of removing all third-hand smoke from clothes and hair after smoke breaks, so quitting is the best option for current daycare workers who smoke. This will not only improve the health outcomes of children, but of the workers themselves.

While quitting may seem like a challenge, there are many effective ways to give up the habit.