A recent study shows that three out of four stock images show babies sleeping in unsafe environments. The study was carried out by Baby Center and analysed hundreds of images available on stock photography sites such as Getty Images, iStock, and Shutterstock.
Each year, there are about 3,400 sudden unexpected infant deaths (also called SIDS or cot death) in the United States, with strangulation and suffocation in bed among the top reported causes, says Baby Center. 77 per cent of the stock images analysed show babies sleeping in a manner that goes against safe sleep guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other organizations.
The study found that the most common safety issue was a baby sleeping with something in their crib, such as a blanket (35 per cent), a pillow (18 per cent), or soft toys (16 per cent). Babies are also frequently shown sleeping outside of a crib or bassinet, such as on a soft surface (16 per cent) or an adult bed (12 per cent). In 12 per cent of photos, a baby is shown sleeping on their stomach or side.
“Major media outlets may use these images for stories about baby sleep – and when they do so, they risk creating a false sense of security about practices that have been linked to sleep-related deaths,” says Olufunke Afolabi-Brown, M.D., a board-certified pediatric sleep physician and leader of BabyCenter’s virtual infant sleep course.
“I suspect that most outlets using these photos don’t realize they’re exhibiting unsafe sleep practices. But unfortunately, it sets this expectation that ‘Well, if the reputable companies that are displaying these photos are using them, then it must be okay,’” she adds.
The problem isn’t limited to stock photography sites – social media posts also commonly show babies in unsafe sleep environments – but the results of this analysis help illustrate how pervasive the problem is, says Dr Brown. “I was surprised to find just how common unsafe sleep imagery is,” she says.
The safest way for a baby to sleep is in an empty crib or bassinet lying on its back. About 90% of SIDS deaths happen in the first 6 months of life, almost two-thirds of the cases happen at night and most cases happen in winter. In Australia and New Zealand, the ‘Back to Sleep’ campaigns of the past 20 years have resulted in around an 80% reduction in sudden infant deaths.
In response, BabyCenter is offering free photos that model safe sleep practices to help address this widespread issue. BabyCenter worked with Dr Brown to curate a collection of photographs modelling safe sleep practices. Anyone can view the gallery, and the photos all have a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0. license, meaning anyone can use them free of charge for non-commercial purposes, so long as you credit and link to BabyCenter when you do so.
“When you use these images, you can be confident that you are helping to normalize safe sleep practices for a change,” says Dr Brown. “It’s one concrete thing we can do to help change the culture around safe sleep.”
As photographers, it’s important to be aware of these issues so that we aren’t perpetuating the problem. I understand that from an aesthetic point of view, depicting a baby with no added props or blankets isn’t the best option. However, preventing even one unnecessary death should make that worth the effort.
Let’s hope more babies and parents can sleep peacefully because of this initiative.