Nothing is more tragic than the loss of a child. It is especially heartbreaking when babies die unexpectedly, as is the case with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), also known as crib death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, SIDS is one of the leading causes of death for children under one year of age resulting in about 1,250 deaths in 2019.
Understandably, the nightly risk of SIDS is a major concern for many parents. With conditions that feel so sudden and random, it may feel like everything is out of your control. And while it’s impossible to fully predict or prevent SIDS, we do have some data to better understand the risks — as well as best practices that can help keep your baby safe.
Physical Risk Factors
While all children are at risk for SIDS, certain babies have traits that make them more vulnerable. This includes slight differences in likelihood across sex and race. Male infants are more likely to die of SIDS, as are nonwhite infants, according to the Mayo Clinic. Family history also plays a part, and if a child’s siblings or cousins have been affected by SIDS, they too are at a higher risk. Additionally, the most vulnerable age for developing SIDS is between two and four months.
Another noteworthy pattern seen in SIDS deaths can be traced to premature babies. Having a low birth weight can be an indication that the baby’s brain isn’t completely mature. This and other brain defects increase an infant’s likelihood of dying from SIDS, because the part of the brain controlling breathing is not fully functioning. Even having a recent cold is linked to SIDS, as this also impacts the baby’s ability to breathe. If secondhand smoke is in the home, there is greater risk for SIDS as well due to the impact of smoking on the respiratory system .
As the nickname “crib death” suggests, a child’s sleeping space plays a big role in SIDS. Everything that falls within the perimeter of the crib is something that could play a part in a SIDS death — including the position in which the baby sleeps. When an infant is placed on the stomach or side to sleep, this makes breathing more difficult than sleeping on the back.
While having a warm, cozy bed might seem like the ideal place to get rest, these factors are actually additional red flags for a SIDS-prone crib. Soft surfaces should be avoided for infants — and this includes fluffy comforters, fuzzy blankets, a soft mattress, and even a waterbed. Each of these creates an increased risk of blocking the baby’s airways and can also contribute to overheating the child. Being too warm is another thing to avoid for SIDs protection. Parents and siblings should also take care not to share a bed with a baby, as this increases risk as well.
Reducing potential risk factors and creating a safe sleeping space are highly encouraged for parents. While nothing is foolproof, this will give your child the best chance of avoiding SIDS. Be sure to keep a bare crib area and always place your infant on the back for sleep. The crib should also ideally be in the same room that you sleep, but your baby should never sleep in the adult bed with you.
Breastfeeding has also been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS, so breastfeed for at least six months if you are able. If you cannot breast feed, sucking on pacifiers without a strap or string while sleeping can also reduce risk, but only if your baby latches on — never force the pacifier. To avoid overheating, ensure that nothing covers your child’s head. Finally, staying up to date with immunizations could also help prevent SIDS.