Each year there are approximately 4,000 infant deaths that are attributed to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is “the sudden death of infant less than one year of age that cannot be explained after a thorough investigation is conducted that includes a complete autopsy, examination of the death scene, and a review of the medical history.” Sudden infant death syndrome is the third leading cause of infant death in the United States. These deaths typically occur in children aged one to 12 months and there is no obvious cause of death.
Although there is no definitive cause of SIDS, there are some factors that could leave some babies at a higher risk.
- Brain abnormalities. Some infants are born with problems in the portion of the brain that controls breathing and arousal from sleep that put babies at a higher risk of dying from SIDS.
- Low birth weight. Babies who are born prematurely or are part of a multiple birth may be a higher risk because their brain hasn’t completely matured. This gives infants less control over the automatic processes such as breathing and heart rate.
- Respiratory infection. A recent cold may place babies at a higher risk due to breathing problems associated with respiratory infections.
- Sleep environment. Babies who sleep on their stomach or sides may have a more difficult time breathing than when sleeping on their backs. Sleeping on a soft surface, such as a fluffy comforter, while lying face down can block an infant’s airway. Sleeping with parents can also be dangerous because there are more soft surfaces that can impair a baby’s breathing and a parent could accidentally roll over onto the child and suffocate them.
Although there is no proven way to prevent an infant from dying from SIDS, there are steps parents and caregivers can take to lower the risk.
- Back to sleep. Babies are able to breathe the easiest when they are lying on their backs. It is important to advise sitters and other child care personnel to place your child on their backs; never assume they know that is what is best.
- Clear cribs. Avoid thick, fluffy padding and use a firm mattress and keep the crib as bare as possible of items such as pillows, fluffy toys, or stuffed animals.
- Don’t overheat the baby. Dress the baby in a sleep sack or clothing that doesn’t require additional covers. If a blanket is needed, use one that is lightweight.
- Baby should sleep alone. If your baby is sleeping in the same room as you, he or she needs his or her own space for sleeping. Adult beds are unsafe for babies and there is a risk of parent suffocating their infant by accidentally rolling on top of them and covering their nose and mouth.
The following graphic from the Safe to Sleep campaign provides a great illustration of what a safe sleep environment looks like.
As health communicators we have the opportunity to educate parents about the importance of a safe sleeping environment for their infant. No parent wants to experience the sudden, unexpected loss of their infant, and creating a safe sleeping environment is the best way for a parent to protect their infant from dying from SIDS.