Dear Mr. Dad: A few years ago, my sister’s three-month old infant died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. My baby is now the same age, and I’m in a panic worrying that the same thing will happen to him. I’m not even sure I understand what SIDS is and what the risk factors are. More importantly, is there anything my wife and I can do keep my son from suffocating to death?
A: In the U.S., around 4,000 babies die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome every year—that’s about one death per thousand births. That makes SIDS the most common cause of death of children between one week and one year old. Before we get to risk factors and how to reduce them, we need to clear up a big misconception: SIDS is not “suffocating to death.” According to First Candle (firstcandle.org), SIDS is “the sudden, unexpected death of an apparently healthy baby under one year of age,” whose death remains unexplained even after an autopsy.
Unfortunately, despite millions of dollars spent on research, there’s no consensus on what causes SIDS. However, many experts believe that the most likely culprit is the baby’s failure to wake up when a breathing problem (such as sleep apnea) happens during sleep. There aren’t any medical tests than can reliably identify high-risk babies. But here are some of the known risk factors.
- Certain types of brain abnormalities increase SIDS risk.
- SIDS is most common in babies two to four months old. Ninety percent of deaths happen to babies under six months.
- SIDS takes more boys than girls. Multiple-birth babies and preemies are also at higher risk.
- African American and American Indian babies are more likely than white babies to die of SIDS.
- It’s more common in cold weather when respiratory infections are more likely.
- It’s more common in families where one or both parents smoke, share a bed with their baby, put the baby to sleep on his or her stomach, overdress the baby, or cover him or her with fluffy bedding.
Despite all those risk factors, SIDS remains unexplained, which means that most babies who succumb to it don’t fall into any of the above categories. There’s no surefire way to prevent SIDS. But there are a number of proven ways to reduce the risks.
- Put your baby to sleep on his back. Until about 1994, doctors thought that babies who slept on their back would choke on their vomit if they spit up. It turns out that babies are smart enough to turn their heads. SIDS deaths are more than 40% lower now than before the recommendations changed.
- Don’t smoke and don’t let anyone who does near your baby. Babies exposed to cigarette smoke (even before birth) are at high risk for SIDS. According to the CDC, chemicals in cigarette smoke may interfere with babies’ ability to regulate their breathing.
- Don’t overdress the baby. A number of studies show that overheated babies can fall into a deep sleep that’s hard to wake from.
- Put the baby to sleep on a firm mattress: no pillows, fluffy blankets, plush sofas, waterbeds, shag carpets, or beanbags.
- Give your baby a pacifier at bedtime. A number of studies show that pacifier use greatly reduces SIDS risk. That may be because it helps keep airways open or because pacifier-sucking babies may sleep less deeply. But does it really matter why?
- Encourage your wife to breastfeed. Research shows that breastfed babies are 60% less likely than formula-fed ones to die from SIDS. They also tend to be lighter sleepers. Plus, breastmilk strengthens the baby’s immune system, which is always a good thing.
- Don’t panic. SIDS is a devastating, horrible experience for any parent, but try to remember that 999 out of 1,000 babies don’t die of it.
Photo credit: Unsplash.com/Giu Vicente