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Baby smothered on airplane: Is breastfeeding to blame? 

Yesterday the Associated Press issued a news report called Breast-feeding mother smothers baby on jet. I was profoundly disturbed by this article, for several reasons:

  • First, anytime a baby dies it is a tragedy. I'm sure the mother is devastated and the wording of the article title places the blame on the mother. It could have been phrased differently to report on the death without accusing the mother of smothering the baby.

  • Second, breastfeeding does not smother babies. A while back I wrote about the rash of articles and arrests related to breastfeeding mothers drinking and concluded that you should not be drunk when caring for your baby, whether you are breastfeeding or not, so breastfeeding is really irrelevant to the case/issue. A breastfeeding mom should not be drunk when caring for her baby and a formula feeding mom should not be drunk when caring for her baby. I think the same logic applies here. This baby did not die because the mother was breastfeeding. Perhaps the baby was smothered, but a breastfed baby does not lie under the mother's breasts, so I fail to understand how breastfeeding has anything to do with the smothering (unless...see point #3).

In my opinion there are more reasons than ever for airlines not to pass out blankets for breatsfeeding mothers to use to cover up. It is a human rights issue. It is a sanitary issue (how clean are those blankets really?). And it is a safety issue.

Need information on breastfeeding on an airplane? See my tips for breastfeeding on a plane.

Photo credit: Kelsey on flickr
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Reader Comments (67)

I was so sad when I read this earlier today. It had to be a freak accident, as you never hear this type of thing happening. Now that you speculate about the blanket, it is starting to make think about what other factors are involved. SO SAD! :(

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMissy @ The Marketing Mama

I'm glad someone else was disturbed by that article for the same reasons I was.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEstelle

So Sad. I read a related article today blaming co-sleeping as the culprit, which also doesn't seem quite correct as the story immediately brings to mind the cautions against falling asleep with your baby in an armchair or on the couch...which (to my mind, anyway) is a different animal than co-sleeping. That, coupled with the possibility of having the baby completely covered up, would be a uniquely bad mix--after all, it seems no one saw or noticed that this mother had fallen asleep or that this baby was in trouble.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLustau

@Lustau: I agree. That is why I didn't link to that article.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I agree with all of your points except one. There is a BF position in which the babies head is under the mothers breast, the football hold. My friend used this position quite frequently. Perhaps she was doing it wrong but the baby was on her side, feet toward her back, and she would lean over and "hover" her nipple over the babies face. She had to be very careful not to lean to far forward or her breast covered the babies face. Again, she could have been doing it wrong. And the woman on the plane could have been doing it wrong as well.

But the story should not have blamed the mother in the title without providing more information.

It is perfectly reasonable to request people to cover up when on a crowded plane where you are forced to sit 6 inches from someone. Even as a woman and mother I don't want to be see someone else's breast. And I wouldn't want my children sitting next to her either. With practice there are ways to drape where you block other peoples view but you can still see the baby and the baby can breath easily.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I hadn't heard about this until now. First of all, I'm so sad for the family for their loss. My heart goes out to them. Second, how sad that this tragedy is being conveyed this way. I just don't know what else to say.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterErin W.

What a tragedy. I agree that there has to be something more to it. I just don't see how breastfeeding can cause smothering under normal conditions.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

I disagree Sarah.

In a football hold, the baby's nose is not under the breast. The baby can still breathe.

I do not think it is the breastfeeding mother's responsibility to make other people feel comfortable. Some people are not comfortable sitting next to black people. That doesn't mean they are right. I think if someone is that uncomfortable with it, they should ask to move to another seat. I wrote more on my perspectives on this in: http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/03/13/what-gives-you-the-right/" rel="nofollow">What gives you the right?

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I disagree as well, and I just wrote about why on my blog today if you care to read the entire thing. But basically, we live in a world with other people, and part of that means learning to deal with other people. There are lots of things that make me uncomfortable, but that doesn't give me the right to make those people go away for doing those things. My son went through a phase where he would not nurse under a blanket or cover. It was too hot and left him distracted. I think his right to eat comes first. When I nursed I tried not to make those around me feel uncomfortable, but at the end of the day my greatest responsibility was in making sure my son was able to eat comfortably.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMZ

I have never understood the whole "you have to cover up while breastfeeding because it makes other people uncomfortable". How about "Please stop staring at me doing a perfectly normal thing like breastfeeding."?

If people are "uncomfortable" with this, that is their problem. And, if it should tun out that the baby smothered because the mother had to cover up to prevent other peoples' "uncomfort", then so much the worse.

It is such a tragedy.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnneke (Mudhooks)

Pardon my French, but HOLY SHIT.

Absolutely appalling that they framed the story in that way. HORRIBLE.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

How tragic... Oh, my God. I can't even imagine the mother's pain and agony right now, I can't even imagine... often times, I would not cover up with a blanket b/c of the fact that I couldn't see my baby's face... I would try to be discreet, b/c I preferred breastfeeding in private, even if I was out in public, but I remember breastfeeding my baby on a plane, and not really giving a damn, you know? (I was way more scared to say 'to hell with it' with my first baby, and would hardly ever do it in public.) Anyway, back to the point of the post - I don't know what to say, other than I feel terrible for the mom.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLoukia

Also, wanted to add that I never covered up b/c of what I thought other people might think of me - like, I didn't care if people thought it was wrong to not cover up, I only covered up b/c I am a private person.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLoukia

[...] Baby smothered on airplane December 2, 2009 Crystal Gold Leave a comment Go to comments Yesterday, one of my feeds brought to my attention the November 25th incident of a mother falling asleep on a plane and waking to find her baby had smothered. At first I didn’t know if it was true, but quickly realized it was as Twitter and the AP started posting various articles about it. It is so heartbreaking! PhDinParenting did a great post today about the incident and shared many of the comments and points I had intended to share. Please take a look at her post. [...]

I had intended to post about this incident on my blog, but you already did such a good job of covering it that I just posted my thoughts and linked to your article (they are a bit long for here). You literally took the words right out of my mouth. Great article! Here it is: http://thevervepath.com/2009/12/02/baby-smothered-on-airplane/

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal Gold

How terrible. That poor mother. I can't even begin to imagine her pain, anger, & grief. *sigh*
It seems like you can't win.
My child was born a preemie and I couldn't breastfeed at first. By the time I could, other medical probs prevented it.
I received so much flack about that.
Then, on the other side, women who can & do breastfeed are made to look amoral for it.
I think if you don't want to see someone breastfeeding, don't look. I'm pretty sure they are not shoving their breasts in to your face saying, "Look at me....look at me."

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterggs_closet

What a horrible tragedy, and this article only makes it worse. I can't say it any better than you have.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

The article also mentions that the mother fell asleep before the baby died. We know that sleeping with a baby in an upright position isn't considered safe. I can understand how it happened, but again, it is not the fault of breastfeeding.

The poor, poor mama. :(

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

QUOTE - Even as a woman and mother I don’t want to be see someone else’s breast. And I wouldn’t want my children sitting next to her either. With practice there are ways to drape where you block other peoples view but you can still see the baby and the baby can breath easily. END QUOTE

If you are sat next to someone on an airplane and the person next to you is feeding their baby, wouldn't you need to be pretty much a contortionist to see breast? (why would you be trying to look so hard?) Doesn't that big old thing (in relation to a breast) called the baby's head "block the view"? I suspect so given the number of people that have approached me when nursing before getting really close, realising and backing off apologising!

As for children - I would be actively shoving mine across to get a better view! balance out the number of babies they see getting bottle fed in every cafe/store/shopping centre we visit to reinforce normal!

In all honesty, I could say exactly the same thing about bottle feeding "Even as a woman and mother I don’t want to be see a tiny newborn with a huge lump of plastic shoved in their mouth, containing the equivalent of a ready meal. And I don't particularly want my children sitting next to her either." Maybe bottle feeding mothers could drape blankets over their feeding infant too? Now you mention it I could make a list of all the things I don't really want to see day in day out - perhaps cover them ALL in blankets?

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

I also wondered exactly how the baby suffocated. It's especially unusual to me that no one noticed the baby in a dangerous situation, such as the baby's face under part of the mother's body. This leads me to believe that perhaps a blanket was involved, as you said. Otherwise you'd think someone would see what was going on and wake the mother up.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

I also do not like the way the article was written. Very accusatory.

My friend was on this plane (on his way to a year long deployment to the Middle East, and unfortunately his own daughter is the same age as the little one who died. He can't sleep and is having nightmares about his baby dying ever since it happened, sadly.) He actually said they were told that because the baby was so young, its lungs couldnt take the pressure. Is that even possible? Maybe this isn't about breastfeeding at all?

As for laying the baby on her lap and leaning over her to nurse, I've also nursed this way, and I doubt anyone could fall asleep in such a position.

I would venture to say it is more likely that the woman was nursing with a blanket over her and fell asleep than anything else. Poor mama, poor baby :(

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKara

How terrible. I'm also wondering about the possibility of SIDS. I know it's less common if the child is near an adult, but none of the articles say whether an official investigation ruled it a smothering, or if that was just the assumption.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJessie

I had a cover up but those don't work any more thought I am sure it would have at 4 weeks and I know the pressure to cover up. I've gotten dirty looks feeding my baby even with a cover up in public and I don't see a fundamental shift coming because of the perverse conservative views which claim to be for family and for children but are against doing what is best for your baby because there might be a boob involved. I think the airlines need to understand fundamentally that a baby is going to do what they want and mine won't put up with being covered. She tried to tear my clothes off. I am just going to hope I don't run into trouble on our flights. I know our rights and I won't stand for this.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

That headline is HORRIBLE. If they truly don't know more details about what happened to the baby, how can they possibly get away with practically announcing that it was killed via breastfeeding in the headline? What piss poor journalism.

And poor, poor mother who had to fly BY HERSELF with a NEWBORN when she was clearly so tired. Where's her support??? Ugh.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

OR why no one noticed she'd fallen asleep when she had a newborn in her arms, or noticed the baby struggling (as I imagine even a 4week old would do if suffocated). Again-- UGH.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

As soon as I saw this story reported, I commented three things to my husband:
1. This baby did not die because of breastfeeding. She died because of a terrible, tragic unsafe sleeping situation, maternal exhaustion, and a lack of observation from all those around her.
2. IF it turns out that the baby was covered by a blanket, I hope the next headline is "Feeding under blankets unsafe, warn experts! Mothers urged to breastfeed without covering or with purpose-designed nursing covers only." But I won't hold my breath. Apparently it's only OK to trumpet risks if they support the party line.
3. The third thing I said was "I bet Annie covers this story" ;-) It seemed like a fitting subject for your blog.

This is an awful situation and I feel heartsick for the poor mother. The real lesson, in my view, is - maternal exhaustion can be dangerous, to infants as well as mothers, and every new mother needs kindness and support to safely navigate these waters.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

I agree, it's such a sad situation, and as soon as I heard about it I was afraid that it would cause people to second-guess breastfeeding. :(

I just wanted to share my experience flying on Qantas because they were so good about it (Australia in general was excellent regarding breastfeeding - much better than the US anyway...the parents' rooms were amazing!). Never once was I asked to cover up. I did stretch a pashmina around the side (because I'm a bit bashful) but never over the top of us. It was more like a wall from distraction than anything. On the flight to Australia, I didn't worry too much because it was dark most of the way and the people seated next to us also had an infant (she was bottle-fed, but I figured they couldn't really object to nursing right??). On the flight back, I used my 'wall' a bit more because two young guys around my age sat next to us and I'm just a bit shy like that.

I nursed whenever I wanted as much as I wanted. The flight attendants were just as polite to me and offered me the same things everyone else was getting even if I was nursing. They didn't ignore me and they didn't have a problem. They offered me the little seatbelt that you wrap around your belt and your baby, but never told me I had to hold him a certain way, they simply asked if I knew how to use the seatbelt. On the flight there, they asked if I was nursing during take-off before handing me the seatbelt and describing how I could belt him to me while nursing, and I actually liked that because it showed me that they acknowledge that as an option. I was a bit nervous about the whole trip and having a baby on such a long flight, but they were so polite and unphased by it that it really helped me feel comfortable to just relax and do what I needed/wanted to do.

I, too, wondered how the baby suffocated, but now that you mentioned drinking and blankets, it does make sense that there would be something else involved to make it more than simply breastfeeding! Hopefully airlines will learn from this.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

What a horribly tragic story.

It is entirely possible that the baby had an underlying heart condition (such as Long QT Syndrome) and that's the real cause of death. It is difficult to determine that after death but it's is possible that's the real cause.

I think the way they reported the story make it look like the mother falling asleep while breastfeeding is the cause of death. If they really don't know if that's the reason I think that's irresponsible of them to portray it that way.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSarah @ Small Slice


Here is an update. "Experts" saying not too blame breastfeeding, but co-sleeping/bed-sharing. At least they do say that places like LLL have safety guidelines for co-sleeping.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndy


I agree. If I was going to get up in arms about something, it would be about all of the bottle imagery my kids are exposed to.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

@Nicole: You can read my tips for breastfeeding on an airplane. It has ideas on what to do if you run into any trouble.


December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


I think it is quite common for new mothers to travel alone with a newborn. If you live in a different country than your family and your husband works, then you may want to travel alone to visit your family so that they can see the baby and so that you can get some help during the early days.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

@Andy: I saw that and chose not to link to it because I didn't like the way it portrayed co-sleeping. Obviously, co-sleeping in a chair isn't safe, but in my mind they weren't clear enough about the fact that it isn't co-sleeping itself that is dangerous, but unsafe co-sleeping practices that are dangerous.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

@Kara: How awful for your friend. :(

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

That is so awful. My first thought was also that a cover-up blanket was involved. But it also made me wonder - how DO you manage a long flight with a small baby? You need to hold the baby, and you need to sleep at some point. How do you do both?

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

@Channa: Most flights (especially long ones) have bassinets that clip on to the wall in front of the front row seats. People traveling with babies get priority and I believe those traveling alone with babies get highest priority. Ideally though (and I know this is expensive and we didn't always do this), you should buy a seat for your baby and bring the car seat so that the baby can sleep in the car seat. That is the safest solution.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

How tragic! The real story, and the news story. I clicked on your link above, then on a link to an article re: "experts warn bf not to blame" -- right smack-dad in the middle of the article, a video featuring a woman bottle-feeding a baby, and the caption "A new study shows baby formula with DHA boosts cognitive development." I feel sick, truly.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

You wouldn't want your children to see a baby eating? Wow. And the cycle continues :(

Trust me, some babies don't actually allow themselves to be covered.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

They "fixed" the breastfeeding blaming aspect of the original article, and blamed co-sleeping instead. I wonder if they will fix this articles, and if so, what will they blame?

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

What a way to scare pregnant moms-to-be into formula feeding. That really is disturbing, and it's why I don't pay much attention to the news; the media places emphasis on all the wrong things for the sake of sensationalism. Well, there's sensational and then there's stupid!

My heart goes out to the mother. I hope that she does not blame herself.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLynessence

Ugh, it is just like the co-sleeping reporting. As you said last week, I believe, if a baby dies in a crib, it's not a problem with crib sleeping in general, but if a baby dies sleeping near a parent or in a bed, "co-sleeping is EVIL!"

And now for a positive story: I flew with my five-month-old daughter, and I was still having latch challenges - this meant I had to see what I was doing to latch her on, and I had to support my breast during the whole feeding. (Also, she was very active and would have pulled a blanket away if I ever bothered to try!) So there was no freaking way I could ever drape a blanket over her. Well, even with my awkwardness, I was inconspicuous enough that a flight attendant offered to get a blanket for us (to cover her body, not her head), and started tucking it around her before realizing she was nursing and then apologized for the intrusion! So positives all around: even in tough conditions you can be "discreet," and the airline employee was totally cool. Oh, and my baby was quiet the whole flight!

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCogito

I just read a supposed "eye witness" account quoted over on ivillage:

Alright folks...listen up...this is the REAL story...I was on this plane and this is what happened... This woman brought her baby on the plane in a car seat. She only purchased a ticket for herself and guess she though she could just put the seat next to her. They told her that she had to purchase a seperate ticket for the car seat, or hold the baby during the flight. She opted to hold the baby. As we're in the air, she starts complaining that she has no privacy to breast-feed. She was in the back section of the plane where I was. The plane was a 777...and for those of you who don't know...a 777 is huge and has big dividers seperating the differect sections of the plane (1st class, business, economy). So, the flight attendents asked four guys who were in the last row of the business section to change seats to other open business seats. They gave this woman that whole row to herself so she could feed the baby. She laid on her side while feeding...then fell asleep a rolled in

From: http://messageboards.ivillage.com/n/mb/message.asp?webtag=iv-psbfvbottle&msg=7492.6&x=y

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

well, if that eyewitness account is true, there's an indictment of any one or any policy that makes women uncomfortable nursing in public...

i have done the same as her and brought a carseat on board even though i had only purchased one seat, hoping if there was a free space that we could put the carseat in it. every airline i've been on has been accommodating about it, although most flights are booked so full these days it's far from a guarantee. i'm just surprised they would not let her put the seat in, but the would go so far as to give her a whole row in business class by rearranging other people. maybe her seat was not approved for flight? i was not allowed to use the seat on take-off and landing on Iceland Air because it wasn't approved by their aviation administration - they were happier for me to have DS in a sling. whereas in the US i've been instructed to remove a baby from a sling for takeoff and landing and ensure they are buckled in the carseat.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRosemary

The way I define it, co-sleeping is, well, co-sleeping, sleeping together. Bed-sharing is one form of co-sleeping. Co-sleeping can be done in accordance with safe guidelines or can be done in a dangerous setting, such as sitting up with the child.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

It troubles me to see that experts seem to be ignoring the fact that breastfeeding releases a hormone that helps both mothers and babies sleep (a wonderful thing!) Do I think breastfeeding "caused" this death, or that formula-feeding would be safer? No! Do I think co-sleeping contributed to this death? I don't know -- there's not enough info, but from what has been presented so far that was not a safe sleep situation. At any rate what does seem to be undisputed is that the mother was breastfeeding, and that the baby died. I'm just saying I think it's possible for a mother to fall asleep while breastfeeding her baby in an unsafe sleep position. It's awful that the baby died and unfortunate that the reporting is misleading -- both ways.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Baby smothered on airplane: Is breastfeeding to blame? | PhD in Parenting...

Yesterday the Associated Press issued a news report called Breast-feeding mother smothers baby on jet. I was profoundly disturbed by this article, for several reasons...

December 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermomshare.net

Such a huge tragedy for all involved. However I'm an R.N. by education that has been studying Long QT Syndrome, for 12 long years. I unfortunately lost my 22 year old daughter when she died in her sleep from undiagnosed Long QT Syndrome. Her autopsy and toxicology were negative, as is the case when a person or child dies from an arrhythmia that is related to an electrical conduction defect of the heart, rather than a structural defect of the heart, like a hole in one of the septums, etc.

Examples of electrical conduction problems with the heart are WPW (Wolf Parkinson White Syndrome), CPVT (catacholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia), Long QT Syndrome, Short QT Syndrome, etc.

Once an autopsy comes back negative, toxicology included, you can assume if the autopsy was well done, and nothing was missed, that the person died from an arrhythmia. The question would be what caused the arrhythmia. Since many causes of arrhythmia are congenital, it is imperative that other family members be seen by a very qualified cardiologist or pediatric cardiologist or EP (electrophysiologist) or Pediatric EP if it is a child.

These syndromes are very treatable if caught and diagnosed properly. My daughter was a textbook picture of Long QT Syndrome, with a fainting history, irregular heartbeat during strenuous exercise starting around 8th grade, etc. but two different adult cardiologists missed the diagnosis. We now know she should have seen a pediatric cardiologist.

Now the survivors in our family have been genetically tested for Long QT Syndrome, and my husband and I each have a different gene for it, as do my two living adult children ages 33 & 30.

Another web site with excellent information is: www.sads.org

Drugs that can cause the Drug Acquired Form of Long QT Syndrome are at: www.qtdrugs.org

I wonder if the mother was taking any kind of medication that could affect the QT interval of the heart? Also was she drinking at the time or before? I didn't read the details of this particular case.

Any one who would like more information on this can contact me at my E-mail address I gave. I would love to answer any questions anyone might have about these electrical conduction defects with the heart, etc.

December 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

Maybe another option would be to put baby in a sling for sleep?

December 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

It seems really odd that the airline wouldn't allow the car seat when there were enough empty seats for the mother to have a whole row to herself. And if this account is true, it's all the more reason SAFE co-sleeping needs to be taught and promoted.

December 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

Yes, she couldn't win, could she? The tone of that post makes it sound like she was troublesome, demanding privacy. Yet, as even some people have posted here, she would have made some people "uncomfortable" if she'd remained in her seat and nursed right next to them or their children! This society really does need to get over itself and let hungry babies eat.

Sadly, if she was lying down to nurse on a plane, that doesn't sound safe. As others have suggested, she was probably exhausted. It's tragic.

December 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

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