SIDS is easily any parent’s worst nightmare. The mere prospect of the syndrome elicits quite a bit of justified fear from anyone who has ever brought home a tiny newborn baby and seen firsthand just how fragile a new bundle of joy can be. So, what exactly is sudden infant death syndrome and what should you know about it? By definition SIDS is a term used to describe the unexpected death of an infant up to a year old who dies from unknown causes typically during sleep.
If you're a new parent reading this, we know even the mention of SIDS is beyond terrifying. As a new parent myself of a five-month-old girl, I know I’ve spent countless hours since my daughter was born just watching to make sure her chest was rising and falling as she slept. Whether it was when we were in the hospital the first few days, back home in my room as she slept in the bassinet or after she moved into her crib in her own room, I have constantly remained on high alert.
There is a lot unknown about SIDS, which makes the syndrome all the more frightening for parents of young children. The Mayo Clinic and many other reputable health researchers believe that the syndrome could be associated with “defects in the portion of an infant's brain that controls breathing and arousal from sleep.” There is a lot of research currently underway with experts working to learn more about that hypothesis and SIDS prevention in general.
Did you know that SIDS is classified as part of SUID or sudden unexpected infant death? SUID also includes infant deaths caused by accidental suffocation, and deaths from other unknown causes. So how many babies die from SIDS in the U.S. a year? According to the CDC, there were roughly 1,500 deaths in 2016 from sudden infant death syndrome. There were more than 2,000 other infant deaths with causes determined to be accidental suffocation, strangulation or other unknown causes.
While SIDS and SUID related deaths are still occurring, there have been improvements in preventative measures and there is a lot of ongoing research that will hopefully keep lowering the number of annual infant deaths. Let’s start by talking about some of the improvements over the past few decades. Back in the early 90’s the American Academy of Pediatrics’ made a new recommendation for infants to sleep on their backs. That advice prompted the “Back to Sleep campaign” which is credited with saving lives. In fact, from 1980 to 2010 the number of cases of SIDS in the United States reportedly fell by 66%.
Currently, there is a lot of research being done to learn more about the syndrome. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control), which has a SUID monitoring program in 16 states, is just one major example of all the work being done to prevent deaths. In these states any time a baby dies from SIDS it is closely recorded. The American SIDS Institute is doing its own share of research in battle towards preventing SIDS. According to the American SIDS Institute’s website, “the American SIDS Institute is involved in research looking at the tissue of infants who have died suddenly and with research studying live infants. This dual approach will hopefully help us understand more about vulnerabilities that make infants more likely to die suddenly.” Those are just two examples of the work experts are doing worldwide.
Even though there is so much unknown about sudden infant death syndrome causes there are recommendations by experts on safe sleeping methods. It is important to note here that while these practices are said to increase safety for your baby, right now there is no guaranteed way to prevent SIDS.
Safe sleep practices include the following:
- Back to Sleep- For the first year of your baby’s life the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends putting your little one to sleep on his or her back rather than the stomach.
- Keep your baby’s sleep area bare- Babies should never sleep with loose blankets or pillows. They also should not sleep with bumpers, toys or anything else that can pose a suffocation or choking risk.
- Flat sleeping surface- It is recommended that you put your baby to sleep on a flat and firm safety approved place instead of uneven surfaces.
- Room sharing- Experts recommend sharing a room with your little one for at least 6 months so you are in close proximity.
There are some other factors that experts say could lower the risk of SIDS, which include but are not limited to: breastfeeding, pacifier use and getting immunizations. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that new evidence shows that skin-to-skin care for newborns also can help to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Did you know that SIDS is often referred to as crib death or cot death because babies who die from the syndrome often die in their cribs? Let’s get into some SIDS facts. There are many known SIDS risk factors. The Mayo Clinic points to the following factors: babies exposed to secondhand smoke, being born premature and babies with a family history of SIDS. It is worth repeating again, nobody knows for sure what causes SIDS in babies.
You might be asking yourself, what are the chances of SIDS? Is there an infant age range were babies are more susceptible? How common is SIDS? Here are some of those answers. The American SIDS Institute reports roughly 4,000 sleep-related infant deaths a year in the United States. In terms of SIDS statistics relative to gender, boys have a slightly higher chance of girls of dying of the syndrome. So how about the SIDS risk by age? The NIH reports that most sudden infant deaths happen between 1 and 4 months of age. Delving further into the SIDS age range, that organization reports that the vast majority of SIDS deaths happen before a baby reaches the 6-month mark. One important note here, despite the SIDS rate by age, the syndrome can occur at anytime in a baby’s first year.
There are certain ethnic groups known to be at higher risk for SIDS. NPR reports that American Indian and Alaska Native babies are more likely to die from the syndrome. The rates are also higher among African American babies. It Is not clear why these populations have higher reported rates of SID syndrome.
Because so much is unknown about SIDS there are a lot of misnomers and misconceptions in the public domain. One of the most common is related vaccines. To that point, the CDC writes, “multiple research studies have been conducted to look for possible links between vaccines and SIDS. Results from these studies and continued monitoring show that vaccines do not cause SIDS.” On that same note, there are many other things that have been proven about sudden infant death syndrome.
The SIDS foundation made the following list to spell out what the syndrome is not:
- SIDS is not the same as suffocation and is not caused by suffocation.
- SIDS is not caused by vaccines, immunizations, or shots.
- SIDS is not contagious.
- SIDS is not the result of neglect or child abuse.
- SIDS is not caused by cribs.
- SIDS is not caused by vomiting or choking.
- SIDS is not completely preventable, but there are ways to reduce the risk.
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