Although rare, SIDS is a new parent’s biggest fear. Here’s what you need to know about the unexplained phenomenon, plus what you can do to help prevent it.
- Written by Genevieve Howland
- Updated on August 27, 2019
From taming thrush to interpreting strange baby breathing habits, infancy is no doubt filled with some interesting situations. But it’s the thought of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) that can leave a new parent sweating bullets.
It’s a nerve-wracking topic—and every parent’s worst nightmare—but one that’s surrounded by so many questions. In this post, we’ll break it all down to help you feel informed and empowered. Here, you’ll find out:
On this page…
- What SIDS is
- How common Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is
- What’s the Difference Between SIDS and SUID?
- What causes SIDS
- And, most importantly, how to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
What Is SIDS?
SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, is the unexplained death of a healthy baby less than one year old. (According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, 90 percent of those deaths occurred before a baby had turned six months.)
SIDS is sometimes also referred to as cot death, because it generally occurs while a baby is sleeping.
How Common is SIDS?
Sudden infant death infant is the leading cause of death in babies under the age of one. (source)
Although that sounds really alarming, it’s not exactly common.
- Each year there are about four million babies born in the U.S. (source)
- In 2017, about 1,400 babies died of SIDS in the U.S. (source)
- That means there’s just a .00035 percent chance your baby will be affected.
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What’s the Difference Between SIDS and SUID?
SUID (or Sudden Unexplained Infant Death) is an overarching term that refers to any sudden infant death. In the U.S., approximately 3,600 babies die from SUID each year. (source)
In addition to SIDS, the term SUID includes:
- Accidental suffocation deaths
- Sudden natural deaths (cardiac, neurological, or metabolic)
- Deaths that could not be attributed to either SIDS or SUIDS
- And even homicides
What Causes SIDS?
Naturally, when we read about something scary, we have one question: What causes it?
We want to know what causes SIDS so we can do everything in our power to avoid it.
The bad news: Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get a definitive answer for the cause of SIDS, though scientists believe the following could be contributing factors:
While we don’t know a definitive answer to “what causes SIDS”, there are some things that can increase susceptibility:
One of the biggest areas of research focuses on brain development. The hippocampus is an area in your brain that regulates breathing, as well as heart rate. Research suggests that nearly 40 percent of babies who died of SIDS also had some degree of abnormality in this area of the brain. (source)
Recent upper respiratory infection
Because there appears to be a correlation between recent illness and SIDS, researchers are studying the role of infections—both viral and bacterial—in infants affected by sudden infant death syndrome.
Interestingly, this research on infections also coincides with safe sleep guidelines (putting baby to sleep on his/her back). Researchers say sleeping on your belly can increase the temperature of the airway, which creates the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. (source)
If baby is congested, don’t panic. The researchers who published this study say SIDS is very likely caused by multiple triggers.
Low birth weight
Low birth weight or premature babies tend to have more breathing difficulties, because both the lungs and brain may not be fully developed.
Although NICU teams are well-equipped to handle preemie babies, it doesn’t stop researchers from exploring what happens to newborns after they go home. Interestingly, scientists believe caffeine therapy may be a viable way to reduce unusual breathing episodes and thus reduce the risk of SIDS. In one study, premature babies who underwent caffeine treatments had reduced hypoxia or pauses in breathing in which the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen. (source)
Note: This does not mean mom should drink more caffeine. In fact, studies link heavy caffeine use (more than 400 mg per day) to an increased risk in SIDs. (source)
A baby is at greater risk of SIDS if the mother smokes while pregnant and/or if the baby is exposed to secondhand smoke. Why? Researchers speculate smoke increases the risk of respiratory infection and interferes with proper breathing patterns. (source)
When babies sleep in a room that is just 10 degrees Fahrenheit above room temperature, the risk of SIDS increases by 8.6 percent. (source) In fact, SIDS deaths are highest in the winter months when heat is commonly running in homes. Researchers don’t know exactly why warmer temperatures increase the risk for SIDS, but hypothesize that warm temps affect baby’s ability to rouse. (Read on for more information about creating a safe sleep environment for baby.)
The Best Way to Help Prevent SIDS: Create a Safe Sleeping Environment
Phew, so we’ve just covered a lot heavy material here, and before it’s gets too gloomy, let’s focus on the positives.
Doctors and researchers continue to research this topic and make strides in coming closer and closer to an answer every day. In fact, the SIDS rate has decreased by more than 40 percent since 1992. (source)
In order to prevent SIDS to the best of your ability, creating a safe sleeping environment is essential. Here’s how:
1. Share a room
The AAP recommends sharing a bedroom, but not the same sleeping surface, until baby turns one—or for at least six months. They say room-sharing decreases the risk of SIDS by as much as 50 percent. (source)
2. Use a flat, firm surface
Your baby should sleep on a firm, flat surface. This means the soft couch is off limits—even for daytime naps. Baby should never sleep unsupervised in a rock and play or a car seat, either—the angle of these chairs can constrict airways.
3. Keep the area clutter-free
Keep the crib free from anything but a secure-fighting sheet. Your baby should sleep far away from cords, pillows, stuffed animals, loose blankets, and crib bumpers. It’s also important to ensure there’s nothing nearby that could fall on baby—make sure any shelves or decor above the crib are nice and secure and out of reach.
4. Monitor the temperature
As mentioned above, a warm nursery can interfere with your baby’s ability to rouse. Your baby should sleep in a room with a temperature of approximately 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit. You’d be surprised how cool this is! Make it easy on yourself, and invest in a small thermostat to keep in the room.
5. Don’t overdress baby
To prevent baby from overheating, dress baby in the same way you are dressed for sleep. For example, a onesie and a swaddle or sleep sack if you sleep with a nightshirt and blanket.
6. Swaddle safely
Swaddling can calm a fussy baby and promote longer periods of sleep, but according to a study from 2016, swaddling can increase a baby’s risk of SIDS. How so? It reduces a baby’s ability to rouse and wake up during a cardiac event, such as low blood pressure. (source) To keep your baby safe, follow the guidelines for swaddling and stop swaddling once your baby hits three months, or can roll over.
7. Put baby to bed on his/her back
Not only does sleeping on the back help reduce accidental suffocation, it also helps to keep your baby’s airway free. In fact, putting baby to bed on his/her back is so crucial that experts attribute this alone to the huge decline in SIDS in recent years.
8. Use a pacifier
Though many natural mamas avoid this particular baby accessory, a pacifier can help reduce your baby’s risk of SIDS. (source) In fact, pacifiers even reduce the risk of SIDS for babies with several risk factors. (source)
9. Run a fan in room
Whether you have a ceiling fan or a tabletop fan, running a fan throughout the night can reduce the risk of SIDS by 72 percent. (source) This is because it helps to keep air circulating and reduces the risk of overheating.
10. Get a new mattress
A study from Scotland found that SIDS risk increased when babies slept on used mattresses. (This includes hand-me-downs from siblings, as well as mattresses from other homes.) Researchers speculate this is because used mattresses harbor can harbor more toxic bacteria that breed as a result of overuse.
These findings support a New Zealand doctor’s widely contested claims that wrapping mattresses help reduce toxic gases from leaching out of the fabric, thus helping to prevent SIDS. But it’s important to note that there is still much research to be done on this subject—these are only theories. (source)
Check out this post.
Another Surprising Way to Help Prevent SIDS: Breastfeeding
In addition to creating a safe sleep environment, you can further protect your baby by breastfeeding. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome by about 50 percent. (source) Even better, breastfeeding past the age of six months bumps that stat up to 64 percent.
Breastfeeding helps prevent SIDS by addressing the biggest risk factors associated with it, including:
- Breastfeeding reduces risks of infections
- Breast milk digests quicker than formula, and as a result breastfed babies wake up more often
- Breast milk helps promote healthy brain development
How to Reduce the Risk of SIDS If You Cosleep
As noted above, the AAP specifically recommends room-sharing as opposed to cosleeping. But many natural parents credit cosleeping with many benefits and choose to cosleep anyway, employing a range of precautions to keep baby safe.
If you cosleep, never:
- Take any substance that alters your own ability to arouse, including medications that make you drowsy, sleeping pills, alcohol, and illicit drugs.
- Sleep on a couch or soft surface—these surfaces increase the risk of accidental suffocation.
- Use pillows or loose blankets by your baby—these items can cover baby’s head or wrap around their body, leading to suffocation.
- Leave space between the wall and the bed—baby can slide into this space and get stuck. (Tip: Many cosleeping parents place their mattress directly on the floor when co-sleeping.)
- Let siblings or pets sleep next baby—siblings and pets may unintentionally roll onto and squish your baby.
Bottom line: Cosleeping can be safe, but the key is to make sure that your sleeping environment is safe and designed with baby’s safety in mind.
Do Breathing Monitors Reduce the Risk of SIDS?
In recent years, wearable baby monitors that keep track of baby’s breathing patterns, like the Owlet, have exploded in popularity. But can they actually help prevent SIDS?
Unfortunately, epidemiological studies show that these devices have no effect on the incidence of SIDS in healthy infants. (source)
In fact, even the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against using all wearable monitors. Why? They have high incidences of false alerts. Plus, there is some concern that these devices may give off harmful EMFs—especially since there is no space between baby and the monitor.
Though it is certainly scary and requires special consideration, SIDS is not common. Take a deep breath, mama! By practicing safe sleep, you can do a lot to help prevent a terrible tragedy.