Understanding and Preventing SIDS

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, is the sudden death of an infant under one year of age which remains unexplained and that makes it one of the most terrifying and sometimes misunderstood risks for parents and infants.

To date, the cause of SIDS is unknown.  Some research suggests that a small percentage of infants are born with genetic abnormalities of the brain in the region associated with breathing, and those abnormalities, combined with environmental factors, could be a cause of SIDS.

The bad news is that, as yet, these abnormalities are theoretical and undetectable by any kind of screening.

The good news is that doctors and researchers have learned a great deal about the environmental risk factors in the last few decades, and subsequently, SIDS death rates have dropped dramatically.  The rate of SIDS deaths was 4 or 5 in every 1000 children in the 1970s and 1980s, but since risk factors have been identified and education efforts have been made, that rate has dropped to only 0.5 deaths per 2000 children in 2010.

Children are at the highest risk for SIDS between the ages of 1 month to 1 year, but the risk drops considerably after 6 months.

According to Dr. Susan Backus of the Angel Eyes foundation of Colorado, parents can take steps to minimize the risk of SIDS death, even if their child were to be born with the suspected genetic abnormality.

Ways To Minimize the Risk

  • “Back to Sleep” — Recommendations now say that infants should always be put on their backs to sleep.  Since this recommendation alone came out, SIDS deaths dropped more than 50 percent.
  • No Smoking — If the mother smokes, that raises the risk of SIDS for the infant 2.5 to 3 times that of a non-smoker.  If someone else in the home smokes, it still doubles the risk for the infant.  Third-hand smoke (that clinging to clothes and fabrics) has not been extensively studied, but doctors suggest reducing exposure as much as possible.
  • Sleep on a Firm Surface — Infants should spend most of their sleeping time on a firm mattress in a safe crib, not in a car seat, bounce chair, swing or stroller.  The crib should only have a single fitted sheet with no additional pillows, bumpers, or blankets.  And sleep positioners or crib elevators should only be used with express instructions from a doctor to treat a medical condition.
  • Keep Cool — Overheating is known to be a risk factor for SIDS, but parents can minimize this risk by using a fan or opening a window to keep air circulating in a room, and by not overdressing their infant.  According to Dr. Backus, infants will almost always cry when they are cold, but not when they get too hot, so err on the side of too cool; your baby will tell you if she needs to be warmer.
  • Pacifiers — New studies suggest that pacifiers may also reduce the risk of SIDS.  Talk to your doctor about when it is safe to introduce a pacifier so not to interfere with breast feeding.
  • No Co-sleeping — Co-sleeping and a “family bed” has become a popular trend in recent years.  Unfortunately, statistics for 2010 in Colorado show that as much as 60 to 70 percent of infant deaths were caused by accidental suffocation while co-sleeping. Keeping an infant in the same room as parents or even in a bedside co-sleeper (a bassinet that attaches to the side of the bed) is still supported by doctors, but babies should never sleep in a bed, couch, or armchair with adults or older children.

“You are the advocate for your baby,” Dr. Backus says.  Grandparents, babysitters and other people your child may come in contact with may not be aware of the new guidelines.  “You get to be the educator,” Backus says, noting that it’s important to stand up for your child and make sure everyone follows your rules.

For more information about minimizing risk factors for SIDS, visit the Angel Eyes website.

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