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What Is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?

It’s every new parent’s worst nightmare: sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), also known as crib death. You check on your napping baby, only to find that he or she isn’t breathing. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 3,500 otherwise healthy newborns die unexpectedly every year—often in their sleep. Yet the reasons for these deaths often aren’t clear.

SIDS is just one subset of sudden unexpected infant death (SUID), a newer umbrella term that can also include infant deaths due to:

  • Suffocation or strangulation (usually by bedding)
  • Natural death (such as those caused by cardiac disorders or other conditions)
  • Homicide

When an autopsy and other investigative techniques can’t determine the cause of sudden death in a baby younger than age one, the diagnosis is SIDS. About 1,500 sudden unexpected infant deaths are categorized as SIDS.

Risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Many aspects of SIDS remain a mystery, but experts suspect that it may be related to abnormalities or developmental delays in areas of the brain associated with breathing and arousal from sleep. The good news: Although there’s no surefire way to prevent SIDS, researchers have identified certain risk factors for the problem. For example, male infants, preemies, infants with low birth weights or mothers younger than age 20, and those with a family history of SIDS are more likely to die from SIDS. However, other risks for SIDS are modifiable. There’s no guarantee that addressing these factors will decrease the risk of SIDS, but it’s still worth considering making some changes to your child’s routine.

Practice Smart Sleep Strategies

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises always putting infants to sleep on their backs and on a firm sleep surface at bedtime and for naps. Sleeping on the side or stomach can greatly impair breathing, so save “tummy time” for waking hours. Never put your baby to sleep on a chair, sofa, waterbed, cushion, comforter, or other soft surface, which can block his or her airway. Likewise, keep pillows, quilts, bumper pads, and stuffed toys out of cribs of children under 12 months old.

Give Them Space

Although sleeping in the same room as parents has been associated with a lower risk of SIDS, you shouldn’t allow your infant to sleep in your bed with you. The safest way for your infant to sleep is Alone, on their Back in a Crib. It is known as The ABC’s of Safe Sleep.

Remember That Breast is Best

There’s one more good reason to breastfeed your baby if possible: It’s been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS. Using a pacifier at naptime and bedtime has also been linked to a lower chance of SIDS.

Don’t Smoke and Stay Clear of Those Who Do

Breathing secondhand smoke puts babies at a 2.5 times higher risk of SIDS.

Your child’s pediatrician can give you more information about SIDS and its risk factors.