Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): Everything Parents Should Know

Becoming a new parent is filled with more than its fair share of challenges and concerns, especially that of your baby’s overall health and safety. One of the most frightening outcomes for any new parent is experiencing the loss of a child via Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also known as SIDS. 

But what, exactly, is SIDS? And what do all parents need to know about this all-too-common cause of death in infants under the age of one? 

What is SIDS?

“SIDS is defined as the unexplained death of an infant, which is determined after a thorough investigation,” explains Anna Morad, MD, Medical Director at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

SIDS often occurs suddenly and with no signs of suffering, while the infant is asleep. (In the past, SIDS was referred to as “crib death.”) 

The cause of SIDS remains unknown, as Dr. Morad notes, “We don’t fully understand what happens when a baby dies from SIDS.” 

What is known, however, is that the “Highest risk time is during the first few months of infancy and likely occurs during a vulnerable time when a risk factor may be present,” she says, adding, “There is speculation on causes but no specific cause has been identified.

How Common is SIDS?

While the numbers of infants who have died from SIDS has dropped thanks to the introduction of safe sleep practices (see below), the statistics are still shocking. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2017 alone, “There were about 1,400 deaths due to SIDS.” 

Their data also shows that the most common racial and ethnic groups affected by SIDS are American Indian/Alaska Native and non-Hispanic black. According to the Mayo Clinic, boys are slightly more likely to die of SIDS and infants are most vulnerable between the second and fourth months of life.

Other potential risk factors include a family history of SIDS and babies being born prematurely. 

However, as Dr. Morad points out, “Capturing the exact number of infant deaths from SIDS is problematic because the definition has changed over the years and the manner in which the deaths are classified has changed.” 

This includes deaths classified as sudden unexpected infant death, or SUID. An SUID, according to the CDC, considered “sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), accidental suffocation in a sleeping environment, and other deaths from unknown causes.” 

Is There a Connection Between Vaccines and SIDS?

There is a harmful and common misconception that vaccines can cause SIDS. Babies receive multiple vaccines between the ages of 2 and 4 months, which is also the peak age range for SIDS. However, according to the CDC, studies have found that vaccines do not cause and are not linked to SIDS.

Can SIDS Be Prevented?

Unfortunately, there is no true prevention or treatment for SIDS, but Dr. Morad says there are ways to reduce the risks. 

Since SIDS occurs while the infant is asleep, safe sleep practices are essential. These include: 

    • Baby is always placed on their backs for sleep
    • Firm mattress in crib, bassinet or pack yard
    • No bumpers, blankets, positioners
    • Don’t ever use a breastfeeding pillow to prop baby up
    • Avoid overheating the baby 
    • Make sure your baby’s head is uncovered during sleep 
    • Keep loose items/objects that can cause strangulation or suffocation out of bedding
    • Room sharing is fine, but bed-sharing is not 
    • Don’t allow baby to sleep in a swing or other device when not being observed by an adult
    • Make sure your baby is put to sleep in an CPSC-approved crib 

The risk of SIDS is also reduced by prenatal care, breastfeeding (parents should avoid tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs) and having your baby immunized. 

All of these things are crucial for new parents to know when taking care of their infant. “No parent wants to consider that this can happen to their baby,” says Dr. Morad. “Unfortunately, it only takes one time for an infant to be in an unsafe sleep situation to increase their risk for death.” 

Support for SIDS Families

The death of a child is a devastating experience, and emotional support is of the utmost importance throughout the grieving and healing process. Dr. Morad suggests seeking out counseling services, particularly those that focus on families who have lost children to SIDS. (She notes that the March of Dimes is an excellent resource when it comes to finding help in this arena.) 

It is important to know that you are not alone, and what you are feeling in the wake of this tragedy is normal, but there is help and care out there. 

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