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 Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

By Erica Martin, M.D.

​​Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is a mystery that plagues both researchers and parents alike. Though it is a frightening concept, parents can give themselves some peace of mind by knowing the risk factors and methods for potentially preventing SIDS.​


What is SIDS?

SIDS is when a seemingly healthy baby dies without explanation. 90 percent of SIDS cases occur in infants less than 6 months of age, with a peak between 2 and 4 months of age. It is the leading cause of death in infants from 1 month to 1 year of age. It is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, some modifiable and others not.

The condition is not predictable. It can only be diagnosed through autopsy, therefore focusing on reducing risk factors is very important.

Risk Factors of SIDS

There are some risk factors that are thought to trigger SIDS in a genetically susceptible infant. These are modifiable and listed below. Some risk factors are not modifiable such as having a close relative succumb to SIDS. In this situation, parents should inform and discuss this with their pediatrician.

Modifiable risk factors:

  • Late-initiated or low-quality prenatal care.
  • Mother’s use of tobacco, alcohol or drugs during pregnancy and after the baby is born.
  • Sleep conditions – such as sharing a bed, soft bedding, bedding that may cover the baby’s face during sleep or clothing that causes the baby to overheat

Steps to Prevent SIDS:

  • Mothers, take good care of yourselves during pregnancy. Avoid alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. Start taking prenatal vitamins early and use them consistently throughout your pregnancy.
  • Avoid exposing the infant to secondhand smoke.
  • Put your baby to sleep on his or her back. Some mothers fear their child may develop a flat head however this is a minor condition in comparison to SIDS. Tummy time can help combat the flattening of the head and can be started as early as couple weeks old. During tummy time the infant is placed on his or her tummy while awake and alert with an adult supervising the entire time. This is for a few minutes at a time for at least 15 minutes a day. This being said, there are some medical conditions that require an infant to sleep on his or her stomach. Only place an infant on his or her stomach if instructed to do so by your pediatrician.
  • Put your baby to sleep alone in the crib or bassinet with a firm mattress and with a tight fitting sheet. Although pretty, no comforters or bumper pads should be used. The baby may be swaddled with a thin receiving blanket or placed in a sleep sack. No blankets should be placed over the infant as these may move over the face as the infant wiggles during sleep. No stuffed animals, pillows or soft bedding. The best place for the crib is in the parents’ room during the first 6 months.
  • Dress babies in light sleep clothes and monitor the room’s temperature to avoid overheating. The room should be comfortable for an adult in a short sleeve shirt.
  • Pacifiers have been shown to decrease the risk of SIDS. Just falling asleep with a pacifier has been shown to decrease the risk. If the pacifier falls out and the infant is asleep, you do not need to replace it. If your child has never slept with a pacifier, keep it that way.
  • If you leave your baby with a caretaker or relative, make sure you explain the baby’s sleep conditions.

Coping with Losing a Child to SIDS:

Despite taking steps to protect babies from SIDS, there are still infants dying of the syndrome daily. It is important to remember that this kind of death is unexplainable and not the fault of the caretaker.

Babies that die of SIDS show no sign of suffering, however those left behind may experience a great deal of pain. If you have lost a child or loved one to SIDS, please speak with a grief counselor.