Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Sleep

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Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is the unexpected, sudden death of an infant under one year of age that remains unexplained even after an autopsy and thorough medical investigation. SIDS is the leading cause of death in children between one month and one year of age, and in most cases the infant was believed to be healthy immediately before the death.

The risk for SIDS peaks between 2 and 3 months of age, and it occurs more often in male infants than in females. African American children are two to three times more likely than Caucasian children to die of SIDS, and Native American infants are three times more likely than Caucasians to succumb to SIDS. The annual incidence of SIDS has declined since 1992, a finding commonly attributed to the Back to Sleep Campaign.

While the cause of SIDS has not yet been discovered, some common factors that contribute to an increased risk of SIDS have been identified. They include:

  • Infant sleeping in the prone position (stomach sleeping)
  • Used of soft bedding or unsafe beds (couches, daybeds, waterbeds)
  • Use of loose bedding materials such as blankets and pillows
  • Overheating due to clothing, blankets or room temperature
  • Mother’s age younger than 20 years
  • Mother smoking during pregnancy
  • Mother receiving late or no prenatal care
  • Premature birth or low birth weight
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke

Research suggests that SIDS occurs when an infant’s body has difficulty regulating breathing, cardiovascular functions, and/or body temperature because of an underlying developmental delay or problem in parts of the brain controlling those activities. For example, some infants who succumb to SIDS are born with an abnormality in regions of the brain that control breathing and the normal arousal response. Infants born with other brain defects, possibly due to genetics, exposure to a toxic substance or lack of oxygen to the fetus (due to cigarette smoking during pregnancy, for example), may also be more susceptible to SIDS.

Scientists believe that while these developmental defects or delays alone may not cause SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome may occur when these vulnerabilities combine with other events, such as