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Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): Are we winning the battle?

Baby sleeping in crib under blanket

October is SIDS Awareness Month.

Facing the death of a child is something no parent ever wants to experience. For parents of newborns and infants, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) can turn joy into anguish. For the last 20 years, experts have debated the causes of SIDS and possible prevention. Recently, information has come to light that may indicate a cause for SIDS, and more information gathered has also meant more informed diagnoses. But in the midst of all the discussion, have we made progress in the fight against SIDS?

What is SIDS?

“SIDS is the sudden death of an infant less than one year of age that cannot be explained by medical reasons,” says Beth Nauert, M.D., a former pediatrician at The Austin Diagnostic Clinic (ADC). While doctors aren’t sure what causes SIDS, they do know several things:

  • Babies are safer sleeping on their backs.
  • Sleep surface is important. Babies who sleep with soft toys or under soft bedding are more likely to die of SIDS.
  • Every time counts. Babies who sleep on their backs normally but are then placed on their stomachs are at very high risk for SIDS. Everyone who cares for your baby needs to know to place them always on their back.

Making progress

While we aren’t certain about the causes of SIDS, the death rate has been dropping, decreasing from over 5,000 SIDS deaths reported annually to less than 3,000. This drop can be attributed partially to the “Back to Sleep” campaign, sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which educates parents and caregivers about the proper sleep position for babies.

“Still, SIDS is one of the leading causes of death among infants aged one to 12 months,” says Dr. Nauert. “The AAP says that the drop in death rate is partially due to changes in the way SIDS is diagnosed. Many infant deaths that were once labeled SIDS are now known to be suffocations or accidental overlay, caused by someone sleeping with the baby. This has been a very real problem in Travis County, with six such deaths in 2006 and now over eight so far in 2008.”

Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have recently found that infants who die of SIDS often have abnormalities in the brainstem—a part of the brain that controls basic functions like heart rate and breathing. Doctors have hope that information like this will help them identify and treat SIDS.

How can you reduce the risk?

“There is no guaranteed way to prevent SIDS,” says Dr. Nauert, “but there are several things that doctors agree can help a baby sleep more safely.”

In addition to back sleeping and using a firm sleep surface, you can help reduce the risk of SIDS by not smoking during pregnancy or around the baby. Mothers who smoke during and after pregnancy triple their babies’ risks of SIDS.

Mothers younger than 20, limited prenatal care, low birth weight, and premature birth all are risk factors for SIDS. African American and American Indian babies seem to be at a higher risk than white babies, and male babies are more likely to die of SIDS than females.

“There appear to be some behavioral and environmental influences that raise the risk of SIDS,” continues Dr. Nauert. “But on the other hand, it seems that some SIDS victims don’t meet any of those risk factors.”

What is being done now to fight SIDS?

Nationally, pediatricians have worked to educate parents about proper sleep positions for babies. Several states have SIDS advisory councils, and at least 11 states—Texas among them— now require SIDS training for child care personnel, officials, and health professionals. This education is partially responsible for changes in the process of diagnosing SIDS.

In diagnosing a possible SIDS case, the better prepared and educated that healthcare and emergency professionals are, the less pain is caused the family when gathering the required information.

“The more we learn about this syndrome, the better job we can do of protecting children,” maintains Dr. Nauert.

Safer Sleep for Your Baby

  • Put your baby to sleep on his or her back, for naps and bedtime.
  • Remind others to always place the baby on his/her back, such as at day care and when staying with friends or relatives. Don’t assume they know the correct position.
  • Don’t smoke. Infants whose mothers smoke during and after pregnancy are much more likely to die of SIDS.
  • Have a firm bed surface. Never place the baby on soft bedding or pillows or leave soft toys in the crib or bassinet.
  • Don’t sleep with your baby. Adult beds aren’t safe for infants. Babies can get trapped and suffocate between the mattress and wall or headboard, and can suffocate if a parent rolls on top of them.
  • Offer your baby a pacifier. Don’t force it or put it back in if the baby rejects it. If you are breastfeeding your child, wait until breastfeeding is well established before using the pacifier.
  • Keep the room comfortable. A comfortable temperature for an adult should be good for baby too. Dress your baby in light sleep clothing.