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What is sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)?
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the somewhat unexplained reason a baby under the age of 1 dies in its sleep.
When a baby dies unexpectedly, the police and a medical examiner investigate the death. They look at where the death occurred, do an autopsy on the baby, and look at the baby’s health history.
What are the symptoms of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)?
Part of the frustration of SIDS is that there are no warning signs or symptoms. All a parent or caregiver can do is take preventive steps to reduce the possibility of SIDS (see “prevention” section).
What causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)?
SIDS is believed to be related to certain sleeping hazards that can cause the baby to stop breathing, such as soft bedding covering the baby's face, when the baby is wedged or trapped between a mattress and something else in the bed or crib, when an adult accidentally rolls on top of the baby while sharing a bed, or when the baby is lying on his or her side or stomach, unable to roll over or lift its head. According to the Safe to Sleep® Campaign, SIDS is not contagious, it is not caused by choking or vomiting, is not tied to child abuse or the lack of immunizations, and is not the same as or caused by suffocation.
How is sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) diagnosed?
SIDS cannot be diagnosed. It is listed as a cause of death through an autopsy on the baby’s body, interviews with parents or caregivers, a look at the baby’s medical records, and an examination of the spot where the baby died. In SIDS, that place is usually a crib or bed.
Can sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) be prevented or avoided?
The medical community has studied SIDS for many decades and believes that many cases are due to sleeping hazard risks that can be reduced. If you are a parent or caregiver, keep your baby’s sleep space safe by:
- Removing all loose bedding, such as crib bumpers, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, and toys. These items can cause the baby to stop breathing, choke, or strangle them.
- Making sure you have the most recent cribs designed to keep your baby from falling between the mattress and the side of the crib, or getting his or her head wedged in between the bars of the crib. While older, used cribs may be more affordable, look for a newer, crib to match your budget and keep your baby safe. Choose a firm crib mattress over a softer one.
- Not allowing your baby to sleep with you, another adult, or another child. Parents bring a fussy baby into their own bed in the middle of the night, forget to return the baby to the crib, and then accidentally roll on top of the baby. This causes the baby to stop breathing. A baby sleeping in the same room (not bed) as their parents have a lower risk of SIDS.
- Placing your baby on his or her back (not tummy or side) for naps and at night. A baby is still developing neck and other muscles that allow him or her to lift his head or roll over on his or her own. When the baby is “stuck” on his tummy, he cannot lift his or her head to breathe.
- Keeping up on your baby’s vaccinations and well-child visits. While the reason is unknown, research has shown that getting your baby’s vaccinations on schedule reduces the threat of SIDS by 50%.
- Breastfeeding your baby and using a pacifier has been shown to reduce the potential for SIDS.
- Keeping your baby’s room cool. Some research suggests that when a baby gets overheated, they may slip into a deeper sleep and have a hard time waking up when their body is trying to tell them to breathe.
Other risks that may cause SIDS are exposure to cigarette and other types of smoke, alcohol and drug use during pregnancy, exposure to second-hand smoke after birth, a mother’s poor care during pregnancy, premature birth or low birth weight, overheating from too much sleepwear or bedding, and a mother who is younger than 20 years old.
Treatment for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
SIDS cannot be treated since the death happens without warning. Your doctor, however, may be able to help you cope with your loss by recommending sources for grief counseling.
Coping with the loss from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
Anyone who has ever experienced the death of a baby is heartbroken, no matter what the reason. Counseling and time to heal are ways to begin the long struggle to cope if you are suffering from such a loss or you know someone who experienced the death of a baby from SIDS. While your doctor may be a wealth of medical knowledge, don’t forget that he or she is usually connected to grief counseling services and support. Don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor about what you are feeling and how it’s affecting your work, home and relationships.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Once my child is old enough to roll over, is he or she still at risk for SIDS?
- Should I wake my child up throughout the night when he or she is a newborn?
- Is there a test to determine how well my baby is breathing?
- Can allergies or asthma at a young age cause SIDS?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.