Sudden infant death syndrome is difficult to predict, which makes it difficult to avoid, but there are some risk factors to be aware of. Boys are in more danger than girls, and black and Native American babies more than babies of other races. Mothers who are under 20 or who smoked, drank, or used drugs during pregnancy are more likely to lose the baby to crib death. The peak of vulnerability is in the second and third months, and siblings or cousins of babies who’ve died of SIDS seem to be disproportionately struck by it themselves.
The specific cause is unknown, but the prevailing understanding is that crib death results from a confluence of being particularly vulnerable for reasons of biology, being at a particular critical point in development, and some external trigger. Whatever the cause, SIDS is the third leading cause of infant mortality. The good news is that incidents of crib death have been on the decline for the past 25 years. One reason for this is that more and more parents are becoming aware of the best prevention strategies, thanks in part to public information campaigns.
Ways to prevent crib death include making sure the baby sleeps on his or her back in a crib—not an adult bet—with a firm mattress. Keep the baby warm with clothing rather than blankets; if you must use a blanket, tuck it securely into the corners of the crib. However, the baby should be put to sleep in a cool room anyway, as overheating may be associated with SIDS. Newborns exposed to tobacco smoke after birth are more likely to experience crib death. Babies whose parents have stuck to the recommended immunization schedule have half the incidence of SIDS, though it’s unclear if it’s directly related or if both are due to attentive parenting.
Unfortunately, studies have found that, perhaps due to the newness of these guidelines, while parents have generally come to understand how to reduce the risk of crib death, grandparents sometimes haven’t. Whether due to an ingrained belief that SIDS is unavoidable or simply not having gotten the memo, grandparents don’t consistently stick to those guidelines, with fewer than half in one survey knowing that babies sleep most safely on their backs.