Facts About Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

What exactly is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and what are its causes? Is there anything I can do to reduce the risk of losing my baby to this mysterious killer?

SIDS remains the most common cause of death for babies during the first year of life in the United States, claiming 2,500 very young lives each year. While the exact cause is uncertain, SIDS appears to represent a disturbance of breathing regulation during sleep that occurs when three types of risk factors converge (this is sometimes referred to as the “triple risk” model for SIDS):

  • Subtle abnormalities in areas of the brain stem that regulate respiration, heart rate, body heat and arousal from sleep.
  • A critical developmental period – specifically, the first six months of life – during which rapid growth and change may affect the stability of an infant’s inner controls of critical functions.
  • External stressors, such as exposure to tobacco smoke, overheating, sleeping facedown and/or a recent respiratory infection.

SIDS occurs most often between the first and fourth months of life, with a peak incidence between the second and third months. Ninety percent of cases occur by the age of six months. Statistics indicate that it is more common in the fall and winter months, perhaps because some parents overcompensate for cold weather by overheating an infant’s room and increasing layers of clothing or blankets. Also, colds and flu, which occur prior to SIDS in a significant number of cases, are more common at this time of year.

SIDS is more common in males with low birth weight and in premature infants of both sexes. African-American and Native American infants are two to three times more likely to die from SIDS than Caucasian infants. It’s possible that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of SIDS.

Here are a few basic preventive measures you can take to minimize several factors that may have something to do with the causes of SIDS:

  • Stay completely away from cigarettes during pregnancy, and don’t allow anyone to smoke in your home after your baby is born.
  • Lay your baby down on his back. For decades, childcare guidebooks recommended that new babies sleep on their stomachs, based on the assumption that this would prevent them from choking on any material they might unexpectedly spit up. Recent evidence, however, suggests that this position might be a risk factor for SIDS. Exceptions to this guideline are made for premature infants, as well as for some infants with deformities of the face that might cause difficulty breathing when lying face up. In addition, your physician may advise against the face-up position if your baby spits up excessively. If you have questions, check with your baby’s doctor.
  • Put your baby to sleep on a safe surface. Don’t place pillows, sheepskin, down mattresses or any other soft bedding material other than a fitted sheet under the baby. His head or face might become accidentally buried in the soft folds (especially if he happens to be face-down), which could lead to suffocation. Plastic surfaces, such as water beds and beanbag chairs, represent a similar danger.
  • Don’t over-bundle your baby. Overcompensating for the cold of winter by turning up the thermostat and wrapping your child in several layers of clothing should be avoided.
  • Offer your baby a clean, dry pacifier when he is going to sleep. A convincing body of recent research has associated pacifier use with a dramatic reduction in the risk of SIDS.

A few parents experience the terror of seeing their baby stop breathing, either momentarily or long enough to begin turning blue. It is important in such cases to begin infant CPR and call 911 if he does not start breathing on his own. A careful evaluation by your doctor or at the emergency room is mandatory. It’s also likely that a child in this situation will be sent home with an apnea monitor, which will sound off if a breath is not taken after a specified number of seconds.

Parents who have suffered the loss of an infant for any reason are faced with the challenge of working through a profound grieving process. When SIDS is the cause, they may also feel a great sense of guilt and anxiety. It’s important that they receive support from a family, church and if available, a local support group for families who have experienced such a loss. Focus on the Family’s Counseling department can provide referrals to such groups as well as to licensed Christian family counselors practicing in a wide variety of locations across the country. Call our counselors for a free over-the-phone consultation.


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What is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and Should I Be Worried about SIDS?

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