Tragically each year in the United States, about 4,000 infants die suddenly of no immediate, obvious cause. Half of these are due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (commonly referred to as SIDS). SIDS is the sudden death of an infant younger than one year of age that remains unexplained after a thorough case investigation, including performance of a complete autopsy, examination of the death scene, and review of the infant’s and family’s clinical histories. SIDS is often referred to as a “diagnosis of exclusion” because it is only applied to infant deaths after ruling out all other probable causes. As the third leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, and the leading cause of death among infants aged 1–12 months, it is important for parents to understand this terrible disease. SIDS can affect infants up to one year of age, but most cases occur when infants are between two and four months of age.
There are steps parents can take to reduce the risk, but we still do not know exactly what causes SIDS. One theory, supported by mounting research, suggests that infants who die from SIDS are born with brain stem abnormalities or defects. These abnormalities are typically within a network of neurons that are located in a portion of the brain stem likely to control breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and arousal from sleep. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to identify these brain stem abnormalities or defects yet, but researchers are diligently working to develop screening tests.
Scientists also believe that these brain stem abnormalities are not enough to cause SIDS. Research shows that additional events must also occur for an infant to succumb to SIDS. Scientists use the Triple Risk Model to explain this concept. According to the Triple Risk Model, all three elements must be present for a sudden infant death to occur:
- The baby’s vulnerability is undetected
- The infant is in a critical developmental period that can temporarily destabilize his or her systems
- The infant is exposed to one or more outside stressors that he or she cannot overcome because of the first two factors.
Researchers contend that if infant caregivers remove one or more outside stressors, such as placing an infant to sleep on his or her back instead of on the stomach, they can reduce the risk of SIDS.
Even though the exact cause of SIDS is unknown, there are ways to reduce the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related causes of infant death, which will be detailed in next week's blog post. However it is important to note that SIDS is NOT:
- The same as suffocation and is not caused by suffocation
- Caused by vaccines, immunizations, or shots
- The result of neglect or child abuse
- Caused by cribs
- Caused by vomiting or choking
- Not completely preventable, but there are ways to reduce the risk
SIDS prevention tips and much more will be outlined in next week’s blog post by our Safe Sleep expert and Executive Director of Wellness Services Dr. Nadine Goldberg.
For more information about SIDS and creating a safe sleep environment for baby, visit this Safe Sleep resource.
 Willinger, M., James, L.S., & Catz, C. (1991). Defining the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS): Deliberations of an expert panel convened by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Pediatric Pathology, 11(5), 677–684.