Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: Causes and Prevention

By Lisa Pecos

Sudden infant death syndrome, also known as SIDS, is one of the most tragic and mysterious causes of death among young children. Although the syndrome has been around for thousands of years, we have yet to figure out exactly what causes it. In all likelihood, it results from a variety of factors that may differ from case to case. The good news, however, is that modern research has at least provided us with a set of practices that we can use to dramatically reduce the risk of SIDS in our children.

The causes of SIDS

SIDS is by definition an unexplained and unexpected occurrence that cannot be explained based on the past health of the child. It occurs in children of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and it seems to occur in every country throughout the world. It occurs quickly and without warning, and in many cases parents do not realize it has happened until hours later, when the child has been silent for an unusually long time.

For whatever reason, few incidents of SIDS occur prior to the age of one month, with most occurring between the ages of two and four months. In fact, SIDS is the leading cause of death among infants between one month and one year. After six months, the incidence begins to decrease dramatically before bottoming out at around two years old.

Although no single factor has been pinpointed as the cause of SIDS, research into the syndrome has uncovered a number of risk factors that may contribute in some cases. Some of these factors include:

  • soft bedding, pillows or toys in the crib;
  • overheating;
  • smoking during pregnancy or the presence of cigarette smoke in the air after birth;
  • substance abuse during pregnancy;
  • lying on the stomach;
  • premature birth;
  • poor prenatal health;
  • a maternal age of under 20;
  • co-sleeping;
  • abnormalities in the part of the brain that regulates breathing;
  • low blood oxygen levels.

However, it is important to note that in most cases of SIDS, the parents have done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, the sudden loss of a young child due to SIDS can lead to feelings of guilt and self-blaming following the event. Parents may become angry at themselves and each other, and it can be difficult to move past these feelings without professional help.

Reducing the SIDS risk

The most important thing you can do to reduce your child’s risk of SIDS is to make sure she sleeps on her back. A growing body of evidence has shown that stomach sleeping greatly increases the risk of SIDS, and widespread “Back to Sleep” campaigns across the world have led to a sharp decrease in SIDS rates in a number of countries.

Researchers are not sure exactly why stomach sleeping seems to raise SIDS risk, but there are a few theories. One idea is that stomach sleeping may cause babies to “rebreathe”-or to breathe in their exhaled breath, which is high in carbon dioxide and low in oxygen. Meanwhile, some SIDS cases may result from stomach-sleeping babies being smothered in the bedding.

In addition to making sure the baby sleeps on his back, there are other things that doctors say parents can do to reduce SIDS risk:

  • Breastfeed. Some research has indicated that breastfeeding decreases SIDS risk, which may have to do with the breast milk helping to prevent infections that lead to SIDS.
  • Make sure your baby sleeps on firm surfaces with no soft items nearby.
  • Make sure the baby does not get overheated during sleep.
  • Avoid all drugs, alcohol, and smoking during pregnancy, and avoid secondhand smoke after the baby is born.
  • Give the baby regular checkups with the doctor.
  • Avoid co-sleeping, but keep the crib or bassinet in the room where you sleep.
  • Give the baby a pacifier to sleep with. However, ifbaby does not want to use it, do not force her/him.

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