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The Unexplainable and Horrifying Cause of Infant Death: SIDS

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, is the unexplainable death of a child under the age of one year. No cause of death can be found, nor are any noticeable precursory symptoms evident. The child does not appear to have suffered. Almost all cases of sudden infant death syndrome occur during sleep.

SIDS Statistics

Since 1992 pediatricians have advised parents that babies should sleep on their backs, and not their stomachs. Incidence rates for SIDS have since fallen by 43 percent. The cause of this silent killer remains a mystery.

Most SIDS deaths occur between the ages of two and four months, with ninety percent of all cases occurring before six months of age. Boys are more susceptible to the disease than girls. Incidence rates appear to rise during the winter months.

Native Americans and African Americans are at higher risk than Caucasians: the risk is doubled for African American babies, and tripled for Native Americans. A baby exposed to secondhand smoke is twice as likely to have SIDS, and babies of mothers who smoke during pregnancy are three times more at risk than the children of non-smoking mothers.

Causes of SIDS

As mentioned above, no cause of sudden infant death syndrome has been found. Researchers, however, believe that more than one factor is at work. One theory suggests a sleep arousal disorder may be partially responsible. Autopsies have revealed that abnormalities in the arcuate nucleus, a part of the brain that controls arousal and breathing during sleep, may contribute to the condition.

One theory suggests that, as a baby lies on his stomach, he continuously "rebreathes" the same air, which is trapped between his face and the crib bedding. This increases the level of carbon dioxide in the blood. Usually, this would signal arousal. Failure to awaken in this situation may lead to death.

Soft crib bedding may also cause SIDS, and since 1999 the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has advised that a baby should sleep on a firm, tight fitting mattress, and soft crib bedding should be avoided.

Secondhand smoke and smoking during pregnancy increase the chances of sudden infant death syndrome, although the exact relationship is unclear. Smoke may interfere with the correct functioning of the baby's central nervous system.


According to a study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, bed-sharing, when an infant sleeps with his parents in their bed, is on the increase in the US. Proponents of co-sleeping claim increased breastfeeding and lower incidence of SIDS. Opponents disagree, saying that bed-sharing increases the risk of SIDS, as an infant is two times more likely to be covered with a quilt or blanket than an infant sleeping in a crib.

Other risk factors include:

Multiple births
Premature birth
Teenage mother
Smoking or the use of illegal drugs during pregnancy
Inadequate prenatal care
Short time frames between pregnancies
A sibling who had SIDS

Preventative Measures

A baby should be laid down to sleep on its back, and never on its stomach. If your infant has GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disorder) consult your child's pediatrician on an appropriate sleeping position.

The baby should not be exposed to soft bed cribbing. Get a firm mattress that fits tightly into the crib. Avoid pillows, comforters and plush toys. Never put the child to sleep on a pillow or other soft surface.

Don't let the bedroom get too warm. Warm temperatures can cause deep sleep, which may make it harder for the baby to wake up.

Do not smoke during pregnancy, and keep your baby away from secondhand smoke.

Home | Arousal | Sleep-Wake Transition | REM Sleep | Other Parasomnias
Night Terrors | Sleep Paralysis | Teeth Grinding | SIDS
Arousal: Those that wake the sleeper; night terrors and sleepwalking.
Night Terrors
Sleep-Wake Transition: Those that cause partial arousal; sleep talking.
REM Sleep: Those that occur during REM; RBD and sleep paralysis.
Sleep Paralysis
Other Parasomnias: Bedwetting, teeth grinding and SIDS 
Teeth Grinding

Last modified 20 September 2006
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