Understanding SIDS

Babies sometimes die, unpredictably, and doctors aren’t really sure why. Sudden infant death syndrome, or crib death, strikes about 2,500 children a year, between one and 12 months old, but because the cause is so hard to pin down, it is almost impossible for pediatricians to prevent or predict. Researchers have traced it to difficulties regulating the carbon dioxide content of blood, but it is not clear why that happens. The strongest hypothesis involves abnormalities in the brain that interfere with proper breathing, or premature babies whose brains are not fully developed at birth, and so less expert in controlling respiration.

Recent research suggests that crib death babies show similar signs as babies who were accidentally asphyxiated, suggesting that oxygen deprivation is at the root of the deaths. The study compared deaths from SIDS to infant deaths from head trauma, infection, drowning, and asphyxiation. Death by asphyxiation leaves behind a chemical calling card in the brain that is seldom present in other types of infant fatalities. The researchers found this same chemical signature present inn the brains of infants who had does of SIDS.

This improved understanding may be able to help medical professionals get a better grasp on what advice to give to parents that can help prevent crib death. There are some recommendations that are already known to reduce the incidence of SIDS. Babies should be put to sleep on their backs. Particularly if crib death is a form of asphyxiation, it is better for a child too young to roll over not to be facing the mattress. According to some studies, a baby sleeping face-down has as much as 12 times the risk of SIDS. Similarly, a crib is actually a safer place for the baby to sleep than a big soft bed. Newborns who sleep in the same room as at least one parent are less prone to crib death.

The same room, however, does not mean the same bed. Despite the benefits of proximity, more than two thirds of infants who dies were in bed with their parents at the time of death, according to a study. Different research found that babies who co-sleep have five times the SIDS risk of those in their own cribs.

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