Bringing a newborn home from the hospital is a time of great excitement, but it can also be a time of exhaustion and apprehension. Many new parents report feelings of worry about their tiny baby, one very common concern being the possibility of sudden or unexplained death.
Waking up at night just to check if the baby is still breathing is something almost every parent has done at some point in those early months after birth. Developing a deep understanding of sudden infant death syndrome can help parents become aware of the risks and the causes of this terrifying occurrence so that they can focus on prevention strategies to keep their baby safe.
Here is everything you need to know about sudden infant death syndrome.
What is sudden infant death syndrome?
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the unexpected death of a baby for no obvious reason. While this is the most common term, such deaths are sometimes referred to as “cot death” or “crib death.”
Fortunately, research has determined that SIDS and other fatal sleeping accidents have decreased significantly over the years. For the most part, this is due to increased understanding of safe sleeping practices promoted through widespread national campaigns.
Across the world, we have also seen dramatic advances in the field of medicine over the last 30 years. As we’ve gained a greater understanding of the human body, the number of infant and childhood deaths attributed to SIDS has decreased because post-mortem processes can better determine an actual cause of death. The term SIDS is now only applied to cases when there appears to be no other diagnostic explanation for the cause of death in an infant or young child.
While SIDS is nowhere near as common as it used to be, unexplained deaths during sleep sadly still occur at times. Knowing what the risk factors are and focusing on prevention can help you keep your baby as safe as possible and avoid the heartache of losing a child to SIDS.
Sudden infant death syndrome causes
How does sudden infant death syndrome occur? There has been much research on SIDS, and scientists have strived to answer this question. While the direct cause of SIDS remains largely unknown, many researchers believe that SIDS is associated with:
- problems in the baby’s ability to arouse from sleep
- low levels of oxygen
- a build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood
It is thought that when a baby sleeps with their face down, they’re at risk of re-breathing carbon dioxide that has been exhaled. When carbon dioxide levels rise, they activate nerve cells in the brainstem, which then stimulate parts of the brain that tells the baby to wake. In these circumstances, some infants fail to wake up and turn their head to be able to breathe better.
Researchers have proposed a triple-risk model to help explain how SIDS can occur. This model illustrates that an infant can die suddenly and unexpectedly when 3 specific conditions exist at the same time:
- The baby or child has an underlying abnormality making them unable to respond in the event of low oxygen or increased carbon dioxide in the blood.
- The baby or child is placed in a situation that could cause their oxygen levels to decline and increase carbon dioxide levels (for example, sleeping face down).
- An infant is at a vulnerable stage in their development within the first 6 months of life.
In light of this triple-risk model, the safe sleeping advice that has been developed to reduce SIDS risk makes a lot of sense.
What are the risk factors for SIDS?
A number of risk factors that can increase the likelihood of sudden infant death syndrome have been identified, but stomach sleeping is probably the most significant risk factor. Sleeping on the tummy has been associated with a higher incidence of unexpected infant deaths, most likely because of the pressure placed on the airways in this position and the risk of breathing back in exhaled air.
Very young babies may not have the neck strength to lift and turn their head to the side and can be at risk of moving into a position where their face is pressed into the mattress.
This is why the clear recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is to place your baby on their back for sleep.
Additional risk factors for SIDS include exposure to cigarette smoke, drugs, and alcohol. Also, studies have found an increase in SIDS in babies who co-sleep with their parents. Here’s more about the co-sleeping controversy.
What is infant sleep apnea?
Some babies can experience reductions and pauses in their breathing during sleep, which is known as infant sleep apnea. These breathing abnormalities can occur when the infant’s brain doesn’t send the proper signal telling the body to breathe effectively. Sleep apnea can also be caused by heart problems or collapsed soft tissue in the back of the throat that blocks the airway during sleep.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea (and is the primary focus of this article).
Babies born prematurely are at higher risk of sleep apnea, and these breathing problems can lead to severe complications, including loss of consciousness and, in severe cases, death.
The symptoms of infant sleep apnea include:
- The baby has breathing pauses that last longer than 20 seconds.
- The baby has patterns of repeated pauses in breathing that last less than 20 seconds.
- The baby experiences low oxygen or a low heart rate.
If you think that your baby might be experiencing infant sleep apnea, you should seeк medical care immediately.
In case you have concerns about your child’s breathing during sleep, you might want to consider purchasing a Nanit Breathing Wear Band. It has been carefully designed to monitor a baby’s breathing motion during sleep when used in conjunction with the Nanit Pro or Plus cameras. The breathing band is soft and comfortable for the baby and will alert you if your child needs you during sleep times. It’s certainly a small price to pay for peace of mind.
Sudden infant death syndrome prevention
One of the best ways to protect your baby from sudden infant death syndrome is to ensure you follow this safe sleep practices advice.
The key things to remember are:
- Place your baby on their back when laying them down to sleep.
- Ensure that your baby has a cot or bassinette that meets the relevant safety standards in your country.
- Ensure that the mattress in the cot or bassinette is firm and well-fitting.
- For the first 6-12 months, have your baby in your bedroom at night.
- Never allow your baby to sleep on the couch or in an armchair, especially with another person.
- Ensure that your baby’s head and face can’t become covered during sleep. Tuck in sheets and blankets or use a safe infant sleeping bag. Never use a doona, cot bumpers, or sheepskin.
- Remove all soft toys and excess bedding from the cot or bassinette.
- Ensure that your baby is dressed warmly but in no danger of overheating.
- If able, breastfeed your baby for at least 6 months after their birth.
- Avoid smoking during pregnancy and after your baby is born. Never allow anybody to smoke around your child.
- Make sure that anybody taking care of your baby is aware of and understands these safe sleeping recommendations.
A final thought
Fears about your child’s safety are a normal part of the parenting journey. Being educated about the biggest risk factors will help give you a greater sense of confidence and security as you strive to meet their needs each day.
Following the safe-sleep guidelines will significantly reduce the likelihood of your baby dying suddenly and unexpectedly, and when you worry less, you’ll find greater enjoyment in parenting your precious new baby.