Focus on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

What is SIDS?

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS, or crib death as it is also known) is used to describe the sudden, unexpected death of a baby who is less than one year old. In most cases, it is linked to sleep; infants who die of SIDS generally show no sign of suffering or distress.

SIDS is the leading cause of infant death in the United States, killing 2 500 babies annually. Although it can happen to a healthy baby any time during the first year, crib death is most likely to strike between one and four months of age.

What Causes SIDS?

The causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome are generally unclear. However, recent findings suggest that a genetic mutation predisposes certain infants to crib death.

Previously less than one percent of SIDS cases investigated genetic mutation as a cause of infant death.

Findings from a study show that infants who died of SIDS have several gene mutations that impaired breathing. This study looked at several dozen SIDS cases and identified irregularities in the area of the brain that control breathing, head turning, heart rate, blood pressure and arousal.

As a result of these abnormalities, the baby suffocates because the brain can’t react to irregular levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

The brain also doesn’t have cells that experts call "pacemakers"; this means they can’t gasp. Gasping is a reaction to the inability to breathe, and kicks in the heartbeat and the replenishment of oxygen.

These cells function based on certain protein cells; protein cells build tiny pores in brain cells that expand when oxygen levels decrease. Seventy-one percent of black infants had these protein changing mutations and 11 such protein-changing mutations were found in the babies studied.

These findings are critical because, while more research needs to conducted, a genetic basis of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome means that doctors can develop treatment to save babies’ lives.

One study found that genetic variation resulting in SIDS is most often found in black babies. This variation increased their risk of crib death by 24 times. One in nine American blacks carry the gene and while this genetic deviation was not found to be the cause of SIDS, it does dramatically increase the risk of crib death.

Other causes that have been linked to crib death are: infant exposure to second hand smoke; low birth weight; poor prenatal care; the infant being overheated (heavy clothing); and being born to a young mother (20 years and younger). Gastronomical and respiratory infections also increase the risk of SIDS because they impair breathing.

Recommendations: SIDS Prevention

Pacifier use reduced the risk of SIDS in 61% of cases. Some parents avoid giving their infants pacifiers while sleeping because they worry about possible risks associated with pacifier use, such as ear infections, problems with breastfeeding, and dental problems.

While there is no proven link between pacifier use and lower cases of SIDS, experts suggest parents follow this guideline anyways because of a strong association between the two.

Other recommendations include putting infants to sleep on their backs. This method, called "back to sleep," was issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1992 and has since reduced the rate of sudden infant death by 40%.

Some parents are hesitant to put their babies on their backs because they worry their baby will choke on spit or vomit; however experts say that this fear is generally unfounded.

Sharing your bed with your baby is also not advised. If you’re worried about your baby’s well-being, keep your baby’s crib in your room. Experts also warn against placing a baby to sleep on her side because she can roll over; once a baby reaches four to seven months, a baby is able to roll over on his own and parents can let him sleep in whatever position he wants.

Making sure your home is a smoke-free environment is also important to reducing the risk of SIDS. Smoking affects the central nervous system; smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of SIDS three-fold, while second hand smoke doubles an baby’s risk of crib death.

Don’t overheat your baby. Dress her warmly, but keep in mind that a baby’s skin should never feel hot to the touch.

Breastfeeding has also been linked to reducing the risk of crib death. Experts believe that this is because nutrients in breast milk help reduce infections associated with sudden infant deaths.

For more information on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, check out the following article: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.