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What is SIDS and how can it be prevented?

Having a baby is a life-changing experience that allows you to nurture a young life. However, many medical conditions can threaten a baby’s life early on, and some of them may prove to be fatal.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is one such condition. Here is what you need to know about SIDS, and what you can do to reduce the risk.

What is SIDS?

SIDS is the sudden, unexpected death of an infant under one. This condition is one of the leading causes of death in infants during the first year of life. Most cases occur when infants are sleeping.

What increases the risk of SIDS?

While SIDS isn't fully understood, researching are learning more and more about what increases the risk of it occurring. Today, it's believed that there is no distinct cause of risk and that in most cases, it occurs as a result of a combination of multiple risk factors to cause a baby who is already at risk to die from it. Some of these risk factors include:

1. Age

Younger babies are more likely to succumb to SIDS than older ones. A vast majority of the cases occur before 6 months. The peak danger of SIDS is between 2 and 4 months old.

2. Sleeping position

Studies have shown that SIDS is more likely to occur in babies who sleep on their tummies compared to babies who are put to sleep on their backs. Stomach sleeping is incredibly risky because it makes a baby more susceptible to inhaling his own exhaled air, which can lead to a significant increase in carbon dioxide and lower oxygen levels. This, in turn, could potentially cause them to suffocate.

Furthermore, a baby who sleeps on his stomach tends to sleep longer and deeper, so he’s less likely to wake up or change sleeping positions when breathing becomes difficult.

Stomach sleepers have also been found to be more likely to experience sudden drops in their blood pressure, overheat, and lose the ability to regulate their heart rates, all of which can increase the risk of SIDS occurring.

3. Underlying conditions

Babies that succumb to SIDS may have an underlying condition that increases the risk of it occurring, despite seeming health. For example, if the part of the brain that is supposed to respond to unfavorable breathing conditions is underdeveloped, or they have an undetected heart defect or a faulty gene, the risk of SIDS occurring could be higher.

4. Unsafe sleep environment

Infants who sleep with soft toys, with loose pillows or bedding, or sleep in an area that is too warm may be at a higher risk of SIDS.

5. Familial factors

Some factors that may put a baby at risk of developing SIDS are tied to the genetic and behaviors of the infant’s parents. They include:

  • Family history of the condition
  • Parent(s) smoking, drinking, or using drugs during and/or after the pregnancy

6. Physical complications

Babies who are born prematurely or have a low birth rate are at a higher risk of succumbing to SIDS.

7. Demographic risks

The occurrence of SIDS in African American and Native American babies is two to three times higher than the national average. Three out of babies who succumb to SIDS are boys.

8. Season

Most deaths tend to occur during the colder seasons – winter, fall, and early spring.

How common is SIDS?

According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 35 in 100,000 babies succumb to SIDS. In 2017, approximately 1,360 babies were affected by SIDS. So, while the condition is comparatively rare, it can still happen, and there are steps you can take to lower the risk.

How can SIDS be prevented?

1. Make sure your baby sleeps on his back

Back-sleeping allows a baby to breathe in fresh air, plus it also significantly reduces the risk of overheating. Your baby should still have tummy time sessions, but only under careful supervision.

Research has shown that putting a baby to sleep on his side isn’t safe either. This is because it’s easier for a baby to roll onto her time from his side than from his back, and if he is yet to develop the skill of rolling back onto his side, he is at risk.

2. Use a firm crib mattress and a fitted sheet

Steer clear of blankets, comforters, pillows, and stuffed toys as they can hinder your child’s breathing; a soft or ill-fitting mattress can also be dangerous. Look for a firm crib mattress and a fitted sheet, and if you’re worried about your baby getting cold, swaddle him or use a sleep sack.

3. Maintain a comfortable room temperature

To keep your baby from overheating, make sure you maintain a comfortable room temperature in the baby’s sleeping space. Set the thermostat at 60.8-68° F (16-20°C), dress your little one in easily removable light layers, and position the crib far from a radiator.

4. Have your baby sleep in a separate space

Co-sleeping with your infant increases the risk of suffocation with a loose blanket or pillow. Additionally, you may inadvertently cut off your baby’s air supply by rolling over onto him, or he could be strangled if his head gets caught between the mattress and headboard. If you want the added convenience of nighttime feedings that sleeping in the same bed as your infant allows, simply move your baby’s crib or bassinet into your room.

5. Use a pacifier

Sucking on a pacifier may reduce the risk of SIDS as the action brings a baby’s tongue forward, which in turns the airway a little bit more. Another theory suggests that babies who fall asleep sucking on a pacifier don’t sleep as deeply as those who don’t.

6. Steer clear of “anti-SIDS” products

Unless your child has been diagnosed with a respiratory or cardiac illness, avoid using anti-SIDS gadgets like electronic breathing monitors as I may give you a misguided sense of security.

7. Review SIDS precautions with childcare providers

Talk with your childcare providers and give them up-to-date information on SIDS so that they know how to keep your child safe in your absence.

Final thoughts

The idea of your precious little one being at risk of a condition like SIDS can be scary, especially if you’re a new parent. It is important to be informed about all aspects of the condition so that you’re aware of what increases the risk, and what you can do to prevent it.

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