Understanding SIDS in Babies

Updated on July 26, 2018
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Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, blogger at Healthy at Home, and educator. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.

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According to the Mayo Clinic, “Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the unexplained death, usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old. SIDS is sometimes known as crib death because the infants often die in their cribs.”

There are no words for how heart-breaking it is to consider losing a baby. Today, “more than 2,000 babies die of SIDS every year,” and research continues to push forward diligently to discover the reasons for this atrocity in the United States so we can stop it from happening.

Hopefully, by being a little more knowledgeable about the possible causes and prevention methods, we won’t have to be so worried about our own little ones all the time. They say knowledge is power. Hopefully, that is true here, and we can eventually figure out how to stop this horrible possibility for our children.

What Is SIDS exactly?

For decades, little ones have died in their sleep and no one has had any idea what could be causing it. When it is reported, medical personnel flock to the child’s home to investigate and try to determine what may have caused the death. With extensive research, testing, and even an autopsy, if they can’t find a cause for the death, and if the baby was younger than 1 year old, the medical examiner or coroner will call the death SIDS.

SIDS is honestly not a real condition, it literally means sudden infant death for which they don’t know the cause. Accidental suffocation is the most common cause for this kind of death, but it is usually called SIDS to the parents to alleviate blame and guilt. However, we do know many possible causes for so many SIDS cases. The real reason is likely a combination of those we will discuss below, rather than just one.

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What Causes It?

There are so many possible causes that to nail it down to just one is near to impossible. Babies are rather fragile early on and are susceptible to many factors out of their control. I mean they can’t roll right off the bat, don’t have efficient use of their hands and cannot pick up their heads. As accidental suffocation is the most likely cause, it’s likely that the infant just got into a situation that they couldn’t get out of.

Brain Defects

Scientists are leaning pretty hard on the idea that “SIDS might be associated with defects in the portion of an infant's brain that controls breathing and arousal from sleep” (Mayo Clinic). They say that some infants are predisposed to this risk because their brains have not developed the instinct to rouse them when their airways are blocked. The belief is that they get into a compromising situation and just peacefully pass away without waking or stirring.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no hope though. Scientists are working hard to devise a screening test for newborns that can determine if an infant has this issue before they even go home. This way, if an infant is determined to be at risk, measures can be taken for the first year of his or her life to assist during sleep.

Prematurity

Another possible connection is when a baby is born prematurely. The idea is that the baby's brain hasn't matured completely, so he or she has less control over such automatic processes as breathing and heart rate. This is why many premature babies are kept at the hospital under supervision, and typically respiratory help, until it is determined that most of the risk has passed.

Sleeping on Stomach

There was a huge movement a couple decades ago called “Back to Sleep” because it was believed that many babies were suffocating from their face being pressed into the bedding. Professionals believed that babies were not able to lift or turn their heads when their airways were blocked, so they would suffocate.

After this movement, the rate of SIDS in this country drastically declined as babies were being placed on their backs to sleep at night rather than their sides or stomachs. This doesn’t mean that this was the reason for the loss of so many babies, only that it might be a factor. Keep in mind, with the publicity this movement got, parents were suddenly made aware of the idea that their babies could be suffocating at night and so many variables changed along with babies sleeping on their backs. Parents may have moved babies in with them, gotten and were more attentive to monitors, etc. Whatever the reasoning, the movement greatly helped!

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Soft Bedding

This is another of the big reasons medical professionals claim that babies were dying. Parents were filling their infant’s cribs with pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals. Many infants were getting wrapped up in their crib-mates and couldn’t free themselves. After finding too many infants becoming victims to all of the soft bedding surrounding them as they slept, it was determined that this was a huge factor contributing to the numbers recorded for SIDS.

Respiratory Infection

As you’ve likely noticed, most of these reasons surround problems with the babies being able to breathe or accidental suffocation. Well, another of the big reasons to blame over the years for SIDS deaths is the infant having a respiratory infection like a cold, the flu, a sinus infection or RSV where the infant’s nostrils might be clogged causing breathing difficulty.

Extended Sleeping in the Car seat

This one is going to be along the same lines. Allowing your child to sleep in a stroller, car seat, baby seat or swing for a prolonged period of time has been deemed very dangerous, especially for those infants that are not old enough to lift their heads yet. You’ve probably noticed that when a baby sleeps in an elevated position, their heads tend to loll forward or off to the sides at strange angles.

It is said that this strange angle of his or her head cuts off the child’s airway. When coupled with another one of the above factors, like a brain defect, prematurity, or the inability to lift their head, you can see where the problem happens.

Secondhand Smoke

And here’s another one adding to the impaired ability to breathe group of concerns. “Babies born to women who smoked during pregnancy die from SIDS three times more often than babies born to nonsmokers” (WebMD).

When a woman is pregnant and smoking, the baby’s different systems are not able to develop in a healthy way, leaving a child vulnerable after birth and not able to function properly. Most importantly, the baby’s lungs are not developed as they had to fight the toxins in the smoke during development.

After birth, the exposure to second-hand smoke also impairs a baby’s developing lungs, just as they would an adult, but 1000x worse. A baby does not have the mature system to be able to handle cigarette smoke like an adult, seeing as how “cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 [adult] deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. "This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day." By smoking or allowing smoking around your child, you are increasing their risk of death by SIDS 100 fold.

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Vaccines

“The United States gives more vaccines to babies than any other country in the world: 30 by age 1, including four in utero. AND the United States has the HIGHEST rate of infant death in the developed world. More than 23,000 healthy babies die in the US every year. There is a new link that has been found between SIDS and vaccines due to the sheer amount of infant deaths that are occurring within 48 hours of vaccines being given.

SIDS rates have been found to spike within days of receiving vaccines. And it starts at day one when newborns receive both the Hepatitis B vaccine and the Vitamin K shot (both containing toxic ingredients). “About 11,300 newborns die within 24 hours of their birth in the U.S. each year, 50 percent more first-day deaths than all other industrialized countries combined.”

Drugs or Alcohol

Finally, and I believe this one is obvious, when an infant is given drugs or alcohol or has been born addicted to either, the rate of SIDS is exponentially higher than those that are not exposed to these things before one year of age. Then you have to take into account the vast number of children that have been killed either directly by a parent on alcohol or drugs, or because the parent dropped the baby at night, or rolled over the baby in bed.

Even sleeping pills or Nyquil can be lumped in with prescription meds taken by either father or mother in the increased rate of SIDS deaths. A mother or father not under the influence is very aware of the new little being ruling their lives, and making a lot of noise in the bedroom at night. But one that is not under full faculty control can cause serious damage to an infant without even being aware of it.

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How Do I Keep It From Happening to My Baby?

At the moment, there is no 100% guarantee that you can protect, or prevent, this happening to your child. Obviously, you can take measures to monitor your child and protect them to the best of your ability, but you can still only do so much. A good start is to peruse the list of potential causes, make adjustments in your lifestyle, and make sure to give your baby the best chance possible at this vulnerable stage in their lives.

Breastfeeding

The number one way purported by all reputable sites on the Internet for preventing SIDS in your household is to breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months and to continue for as long as you are able to. “Breastfeeding your baby can lower the risk of SIDS by as much as 50%” (WebMD). Whether it’s the immunities that you are passing on to your child, the continued growth that you are supporting through your breastmilk, or the fact that your child’s mouth and nose remain open to breathing during breastfeeding, we may never know. It may be all of the above.

It is widely known that “respiratory and gastrointestinal infections contribute to the SIDS risk, and breastfeeding infants get fewer respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Breastfeeding protects against RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) infections, and this virus has been implicated in causing inflammation of the lungs that could contribute to SIDS” (Dr. Sears). By protecting baby from infections, the risks factors that go along with the infections baby is exposed to from birth drop immensely.

There are other ways that a mother’s milk contribute to this lowered risk of SIDS as well. “Human milk contains substances (such as cholesterol, linolenic acid, and taurine) that enhance the development of the central nervous system in several ways, the most convincing of which is that it provides vital fats, namely DHA for myelin, the insulating sheath around nerves that helps impulses travel faster. (Postmortem examinations have shown deficient myelination—the covering around nerves that lets impulses travel faster—in the nerves around the respiratory control center in some infants who died of SIDS)” (Dr. Sears). Essentially by protecting the nerves in babies’ brains that control impulses through breastfeeding, the risk for losing your baby due to the brain defect go away as well.

Finally, “breastfeeding helps breathing in two ways: by helping the brain systems that control breathing to mature, and by helping to keep tiny air passages open. It is also interesting to note that breastfeeding infants have higher blood levels of the hormone progesterone, and progesterone stimulates breathing. In summary, babies who get breastmilk breathe better” (Dr. Sears). Breastfeeding alone gets rid of most of the risk factors for SIDS.

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Sleep with Baby in Your Room

There has been a great deal of research that has shown that just having your infant sleep in the same room as you can reduce the risk of SIDS by almost half. Therefore, this is at the top of the list for SIDS prevention on all prestigious medical websites discussing SIDS. Many factors contribute to this correlation.

First of all, even if infants cannot yet roll over, coordinate their hands or feet, or hold up their head, even at the delicate age of 4-6 weeks they can cry, fuss, and put up a good fight flailing around like crazy. Unfortunately, with many parents putting their infants in another room to sleep alone, these cries go unheard, and the baby’s cries for help go unheeded.

For those parents with baby monitors in their baby’s room, I’ve personally heard many parents say that they turn the volume down or ignore the cries altogether because they fuss so much in the other room. When the baby is in your room, this is less likely to happen.

“Popular media has tried to discourage parents from sharing sleep with their babies, calling this worldwide practice unsafe. Medical science, however, doesn’t back this conclusion and prove the benefits of co-sleeping”(Dr. Sears). “In fact, research shows that co-sleeping is actually safer than sleeping alone.” Here is what science says about sleeping with your baby:

“Worldwide research shows that the SIDS rate is lowest (and even unheard of) in countries where co-sleeping is the norm, rather than the exception” (Dr. Sears). “Babies who sleep either in or next to their parents’ bed have a fourfold decrease in the chance of SIDS. Co-sleeping babies actually spend more time sleeping on their back or side 1 which decreases the risk of SIDS. Further research shows that the carbon dioxide exhaled by a parent actually works to stimulate baby’s breathing” (Dr. Sears).

“The Consumer Product Safety Commission published data that described infant fatalities in adult beds. These same data, however, showed more than 3 times as many crib-related infant fatalities compared to adult bed accidents. Another recent large study concluded that bed sharing did NOT increase the risk of SIDS unless the mom was a smoker or abused alcohol” (Dr. Sears). Even WebMD reports that “skin-to-skin contact is important for your baby’s development.”

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Dealing With It Afterwards

This is the hard one. What do you say to a parent that just found their baby lifeless? Even when it’s not your baby, the loss of an infant has a huge ripple effect. Just a few years ago a good friend of mine lost her 5-month-old infant to SIDS while the baby was napping at a friend’s house. I heard the awful details of them finding the baby, the lifesaving methods they attempted, how she felt, and even what happened once the medical personnel arrived. It was terrifying.

Every one of us that knew her, that had young children ourselves, were traumatized. I couldn’t stop holding my little one, not much older than his sweet friend, close. I wouldn’t let him out of my sight. Even now, with a second baby, I am still wary, still checking on both of them multiple times a night to make sure they are still breathing and okay. And it didn’t even happen to me. I cry as I sit here thinking about it.

If this has happened to you, please don’t blame yourself. Losing a child is impossibly hard no matter how it happens and it is going to take a lifetime to recover. You will never forget your child, and no one expects you to, but you may need to seek professional help to help walk you through the loss. I know when we lost our second child, we both benefited from visiting a counselor. The loss was literally tearing apart our marriage. Don’t let it get that bad. See someone and talk about it.

This is one of those things that although it may sound scary, is important to know about. The more you know the better you can protect you family from something like this happening to you. Print this out, share it with friends, share it on Facebook, pin it on Pinterest and get the word out. No one should have to experience the loss of a child, no one.

If there’s anything we can do to drastically reduce those numbers, and save the lives of thousands of children every year, even just by making this public, we need to do it. And if you know of someone that this has happened to, make sure to be understanding and sensitive. It doesn’t matter how they lost their child anymore, only that they are suffering and need some patience.

I hope this helps to calm some of your fears and help you understand this unnecessary epidemic a little better so you can protect your family.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Victoria Van Ness

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      • VVanNess profile imageAUTHOR

        Victoria Van Ness 

        4 months ago from Fountain, CO

        Thank you for your comment. I definitely think the suggested ways for everything regarding parents changes every few years. No one really knows what they are doing, I don't think. We are all just doing our best with what information we are given at the time.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        4 months ago from Sunny Florida

        This is a great article that I am sure will provide a lot of new information to new mothers. My babies are grown, but I always keep them in a bassinette near that was placed near by bed. I do remember putting my hand on them if they slept a bit longer than I thought they would to make sure they were breathing. At that time we were told to put babies on the tummies to prevent chocking in case they threw up. Times change.

        I believe in vaccinations, but maybe we start to young. Mine did not receive 30 shots the first year, so the number has increased.

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