Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) represents one of the most distressing risks for parents. It is estimated that there is one case for every thousand live births, so that in Spain there would be about 100 cases of sudden infant death each year. However, the latest data published by the National Institute of Statistics and dating from 2016 indicate that there were 44 deaths of babies from this cause.
What is sudden infant death syndrome?
The syndrome of sudden infant death is, according to the Spanish Association of Pediatrics: the “sudden death of a child under one year of age, which apparently occurs during sleep and which remains unexplained after a thorough post mortem investigation, which includes the practice of autopsy, examination of the place of death and review of the medical history ” .
What are the causes of sudden infant death syndrome?
At this time, the causes of sudden infant death syndrome are unknown. However, different studies have been carried out trying to find an explanation. An exhaustive investigation carried out by the Perinatal and Infant Pathology Working Group of the Spanish Society of Forensic Pathology analyzed 764 cases, of which 488 corresponded to sudden deaths during the first year of life and 276 to sudden deaths of children between 1 and 14 years old.
The results were the following:
- The majority of infants who died from sudden death are male,indicating that they may be at higher risk.
- The highest risk of sudden death syndrome occurs around 2 months of life.
- Although cases are reported throughout the year, the highest number of deaths occurs during the winter months.
- In the cases in which the causes could be determined, 13% were due to problems of the respiratory system,generally due to an infectious disease. In some cases, possible suffocation was noted, either by sharing a bed with the parents, by elements of the crib or by sleeping in a prone position. In 10% of cases, death was due to a heart problem. In another 9%, the cause was systemic, generally due to a multi-organ infection of viral etiology. Diseases of the nervous and digestive systems represented a small percentage of the cases analyzed.
These data are in tune with some medical hypotheses that attempt to explain the causes of sudden infant death syndrome. It is thought, for example, that some children may have a brain defect in the areas that control breathing and awakening from sleep, increasing the risk of choking and breathing problems.
In fact, prematurity is a risk factor, especially children born before 37 weeks of gestation, since some areas of the brain may not have matured enough to properly meet the basic physiological needs of the child.
Other risk factors to avoid are:
- Sleeping on your stomach or side. Babies who sleep in these positions may have more trouble breathing, which increases the risk of sudden death syndrome.
- Sleep on a very soft mattress or with pillows. If the baby lies on her stomach on a very soft mattress, a soft blanket or a pillow, these can block her airway.
- Share bed with parents. Co-sleeping increases the risk of sudden death syndrome as parents may inadvertently suffocate the baby. That risk increases when the bed is shared with two people.
Three recommendations to prevent sudden baby death
The good news is that, although there are factors that are beyond parental control, you can take some steps to reduce the risk of sudden death.
1. Be careful if you practice co-sleeping
Co-sleeping, or sharing a bed with the baby, is an increasingly widespread practice among parents. In fact, it is a very effective alternative to strengthen the emotional bond with the child, but it is also a risk factor for sudden death from drowning or crushing. A study by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analyzed some 1,500 cases of sudden infant death and found that 22.2% of the cases occurred while parents were sleeping with their child. Therefore, if you want to reduce the risk of sudden death in your baby, it is better to put her in the crib, which you can place next to your bed.
2. Control your temperature
According to the Utah Department of Health, babies who sleep in a very hot room are at a higher risk of SIDS. What happens is that babies are very sensitive to changes in the environment, so when their body temperature gets too high they find it difficult to breathe normally. Therefore, when it is time to sleep, do not put too many clothes and blankets on your baby, which also increase the risk of suffocation during sleep. You should also make sure that the room is well ventilated and has a temperature between 18ºC and 20ºC, which reduces the risk of sudden death by 70%.
3. Try laying him on his back
Did you know that babies who sleep on their sides are 6.5 times more likely to die from drowning? Sleeping on the stomach or side increases the risk of sudden death in infants as these positions obstruct the flow of air, making it more difficult for them to breathe. On the other hand, when the baby sleeps on his back, he can breathe more easily, reducing the risk of sudden death by half, although this position has also been linked to craniofacial malformations. However, remember that if your baby suffers from gastroesophageal reflux you should not put him in that position.