The sudden death of an infant is always heartbreaking. Not knowing the reason a baby has died makes an unbearable situation even more painful. When there is no explanation for the sudden death of a child between one month and one year, it is classified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS. The cause of SIDS is unknown. However, there are facts we know about the children it strikes. The following are SIDS risk factors and preventative measures.
- 90% of cases happen by six months of age.
- Rates are slightly higher for boys than girls.
- Rates are higher in certain ethnic groups.
- American Indian and Alaska Native were highest.
- Asian and Pacific Islanders were lowest.
In 2017 there were 1,400 deaths attributed to SIDS. In the US, it’s the leading cause of death in this age group.
The unknown surrounding SIDS can make it seem like it just comes down to bad luck. Parents can take steps to decrease their child’s risk. However, even when parents do everything, SIDS cannot be 100% prevented due to the fact that an exact cause or causes are not known at this time.
SIDS and Sleep
Because SIDS happens during sleep, many of the steps recommended have to do with the sleep environment. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends always placing a baby on their back for sleep, day and night. Parents should make sure that anyone caring for their child follows this important advice. The Back to Sleep campaign initiated in 1992 is attributed to a significant decline in the SIDS rate.
Many parents express concern when their baby starts rolling over to their tummy on their own. The AAP provides reassurance on their website Healthy Children that, “…if your baby is comfortable rolling both ways (back to tummy, tummy to back), then you do not have to return your baby to the back.”
For their first year, babies should sleep in the same room as their parents. Because co-sleeping is associated with a higher incidence of SIDS, babies should sleep in their own bed. A crib or bassinet is recommended. Sofas and chairs aren’t suitable for sleep surfaces and are particularly risky.
The baby’s sleeping surface should be firm, and there should be nothing in the bed with the child — no bumper pads, pillows or stuffed animals.
Room temperatures and clothing should provide warmth without overheating infants. Using a sleep sack for warmth is advised instead of blankets.
Breastfeeding is associated with significantly lower rates of SIDS. A study in 2017 reported that breastfeeding for at least two months resulted in reducing SIDS rates by 50%. This was true even when breastfeeding was combined with formula.
Additional SIDS risk-reduction recommendations include offering a pacifier at times of sleep, not smoking during pregnancy, and not letting anyone smoke around your child.
Dr. Bande Virgil, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician by the American Board of Pediatrics. She is a pediatric hospitalist from Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics Mercer University School of Medicine, Columbus. Virgil talks to every parent and caregiver of newborns and children under a year about SIDS prevention at every interaction she has with them.
“SIDS rates are impacted by simple modifications in safe sleep for infants under one year of age. That’s a major win for public health. Our public health initiatives to educate parents about the risk factors that impact SIDS have resulted in evidence of decreased SIDS rates.”
Virgil adds, “If we can save one child and spare one family the heartache of losing their child, the conversation is worth it.”
SIDS Risk Factors and Prevention: Sources
CDC: Sudden Unexpected Death and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Data and Statistics
Healthy Children: How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe
Pediatrics: Duration of Breastfeeding and Risk of SIDS: An Individual Participant Data Meta-analysis
American SIDS Institute: Reduce the Risk