SIDS / Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is a medical term that describes the sudden death of an otherwise healthy infant which remains unexplained after all known and possible causes have been carefully ruled out through autopsy, death scene investigation, and review of the medical history. There appears to be no suffering in most cases; death occurs very rapidly, usually during sleep. SIDS is the leading killer of infants between one week and one year with an approximate rate of two per thousand live births (1 in 500). 6000-7000 babies die of SIDS every year in the US.

It appears likely that SIDS may be caused by some subtle developmental delay, an anatomical defect or functional failure. SIDS, like other medical disorders, may eventually have more than one explanation and more than one means of prevention. This may explain why the characteristics of SIDS babies seem so varied. While there are still no adequate medical explanations for SIDS deaths, current theories include: (1) stress in a normal baby, caused by infection or other factors; (2) a birth defect; (3) failure to develop; and/or (4) a critical period when all babies are especially vulnerable, such as a time of rapid growth.

Currently, SIDS cannot be predicted or prevented, even by a physician. But, some recent studies have begun to isolate several risk factors which, though not causes of SIDS in and of themselves, may play a role in some cases. In some cases, the elimination of a risk factor can alter the outcome, influencing the baby's ability to survive.

SIDS is not anyone's fault. SIDS happens to parents of all economic, social, educational, and racial groups.

Here are some tips to possibly reduce SIDS risks:

  • Place the baby on its back to sleep at night or during naptimes.
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has long been associated with women who smoke during pregnancy. Stop smoking around the baby. Constant smoke exposure both during and after pregnancy can triple a baby's risk for SIDS.
  • Use a firm mattress in a safety-approved crib or bassinet.
  • The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a series of advisories for parents on the hazards posed to infants sleeping on beanbag cushions, sheepskins, foam pads, foam sofa cushions, synthetic filled adult pillows and foam pads covered with comforters. Waterbeds should also be avoided.
  • Be careful when sharing bed with your infant. Research says that keeping the baby alongside the adult bed or sofa in his or her own secure crib or bassinet provides greater safety for the infant and proximity for parents seeking to facilitate breastfeeding and share closeness with their baby.
  • Avoid using a blanket or other covering over your baby's face as a sun or weather screen, or to block out distractions or sound while your baby is sleeping. Bedding that covers, bunches up or contours around your baby's face can cause a potentially dangerous re-breathing of carbon dioxide.
  • Research findings indicate that overheating - too much clothing, too heavy bedding, and too warm a room - may greatly increase the risk of SIDS for a baby with a cold or infection.
  • Maintaining good prenatal care and constant communication with your baby's doctor about changes in your baby's behavior and health are of the utmost importance.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,