SIDS Information Every Parent Should Know

Every new parent needs to learn about SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. And while the numbers are decreasing, about 2,500 infants in the United States still die from SIDS each year. Scientists don't yet know how to prevent it, but there are specific precautions you can take to reduce its risk.

What Is SIDS?

Experts define SIDS as the sudden, unexplained death of an otherwise healthy infant under the age of one. It occurs when babies are sleeping, which is why it is also referred to as "crib death." It is the leading cause of death in infants under age 12 months, and occurs most often in infants between the ages of 2-4 months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What Causes SIDS?

Although it's been the subject of many studies, researchers still don't know what causes SIDS. One thing we do know: back-sleeping babies are at less risk of SIDS than babies who sleep on their tummies or sides. The incidence of SIDS deaths has declined by more than 50% since 1994, when America's first "Back to Sleep" campaign was launched.

There are several theories regarding the possible causes of SIDS. One is that bedding around babies' faces can limit air supply, forcing them to re-breathe exhaled air, which is low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide, a toxin. Another is that SIDS babies may not have the ability to wake themselves when their air is limited, due to a deficit in a part of the brain called the arcuate nucleus.

While the research continues, most experts agree that it may be a combination of factors—rather than a single cause—that contributes to SIDS. That's why it's important to take every precaution when laying your baby down to sleep.

Steps You Can Take Against SIDS

There are a number of precautions you can take to make baby's sleep environment safer, including these recommendations offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the American SIDS Institute:

  • ALWAYS place your infant on his or her back to sleep, even for a short nap. Make sure baby's caregivers also follow this practice. A baby who sleeps on its back at home, but on its stomach elsewhere (a practice known as "unaccustomed tummy sleeping") is at a much greater risk of SIDS, according to the AAP.
  • Make sure baby is sleeping on a firm crib mattress, not in an adult bed or on cushioned furniture.
  • Remove all soft and loose items from the crib, including blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals.
  • Do not allow baby to become overheated. Keep the room at a temperature that's comfortable for a lightly-clothed adult. Do not over-bundle baby.
  • Place the crib in an area that's always smoke-free. Better yet, make baby's world smoke-free. According to the American SIDS Institute, the greater an infant's exposure to tobacco smoke, the greater the risk of SIDS.
  • Have baby sleep in your room, secure in his cradle, bassinet, or co–sleeper. Sleeping in the same room as a parent reduces an infant's risk of SIDS. However, babies should not sleep unprotected in adult beds.
  • Breastfeed. Studies suggest that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of SIDS, possibly by helping protect babies from infection.
  • Offer baby a pacifier at bedtime. Some studies show a lower rate of SIDS among babies who suck on pacifiers.
  • Don't rely on products that claim to prevent SIDS. Products like monitors will alert you to baby's noises and movements, but don't eliminate the risk of SIDS. It's important for parents to remain vigilant.

Don't Forget Tummy Time

There is one drawback to back-sleeping: it can lead to positional plagiocephaly, or the development of a flat spot on the back of baby's head. To avoid this problem, experts recommend plenty of supervised tummy time, which also helps build neck and torso strength. They also suggest changing babies' position during waking hours, and varying the angle of baby's head while lying on his back.

The Risk is Real

As heartbreaking as it is, a parent can take every possible precaution and still lose a child to SIDS. Sometimes it is simply unpreventable. It is not in any way the parent's fault.

It is hard to imagine a more devastating tragedy, or one that's harder to come to terms with. That's why SIDS support groups and organizations are so important. To find a support group near you, visit the First Candle/SIDS Alliance or The SIDS Network.

More Information

  • These are excellent resources for more detailed information about SIDS:
  • American Academy of Pediatrics – http://www.aap.org
  • National Institute of Child Health & Human Development – www.nichd.nih.gov/sids
  • American SIDS Institute – www.sids.org
  • The National SIDS/Infant Death Resource Center – www.sidscenter.org
  • First Candle/SIDS Alliance – www.sidsalliance.org
  • The SIDS Network – www.SIDS-network.org

One Step Ahead supports SIDS research and is a long-time sponsor of First Candle/SIDS Alliance. In time, medical researchers will unlock the mystery of SIDS. But until that day comes, it's important for parents to educate themselves and take every precaution to protect their babies.

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