How it happens is still not entirely clear to scientists.
According to Chris Blake, CEO of First Candle, the premier SIDS charity in the U.S., "A leading theory is that an infant who appears to be healthy has an underlying defect located in the brain stem. This area in the brain controls heart and lung functions, including heart rate and breathing. Babies born with this abnormality may be more vulnerable to sudden death."
SIDS risk is at its peak from the ages of 1 to 4 months, with 90 percent of cases occurring in babies younger than 6 months. Parents have a hard time with SIDS because it seems so unpredictable: Babies are most likely to die suddenly when they are asleep, normally between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. These also happen to be the hours that an exhausted new mom is trying to get some rest.
The American Academy of Pediatrics' Safe to Sleep campaign, launched in 1994, warns moms and dads that there are ways to minimize the risk of losing a baby to SIDS. The simple campaign, where parents were urged to sleep babies on their backs instead of their stomachs, caused SIDS rates to drop dramatically by 50 percent.
These new SIDS practices have been in place for more than 20 years, but babies are still dying, parents are still scared and people still want to know why. The most recent statistics show that 2,000 babies died of SIDS in 2010.
In a SIDS study entitled "What Factors Influence Sleep Position of Infants in the Home," researchers from the University at Buffalo School of Nursing explored this uncomfortable question and found that even with the new safe sleep guidelines passed on by pediatricians, accidental suffocation and strangulation rates among babies are on the rise. The reason? New moms are more likely to listen to family tradition and put a baby to sleep how their mother did. Parents may also increase risk by sleeping with their babies or piling extra blankets in the crib in cold weather. Cultural factors come into play too — African-American and Native American babies have more than twice the SIDS rates of Caucasian babies.
In a study that examined SIDS deaths in San Diego from 1991 to 2008, SIDS caused by bed-sharing increased from 19.2 percent to 37.9 percent, especially among parents of newborns younger than 2 months. Ninety-nine percent of the babies who died from SIDS had at least one risk factor, like prenatal cigarette exposure, male gender, sleeping in soft bedding or sleeping on the stomach.
Dr. Meena Chintapalli of A thru Z Pediatrics says of back sleeping: "It's something so simple, but I know for a fact not all parents are taking this basic precaution. Many times movies, television programs and even commercials show babies sleeping on their stomach, and many parents mistakenly follow the example. Other parents feel like their newborns sleep longer when on their stomachs, but this position limits the amount of air an infant has access to."
No one wants to talk about SIDS because it's tragic and scary and unpredictable. But Jim Sideras, fire chief, clinical nurse specialist and chair of the Sioux Falls Regional Infant and Child Mortality Review Committee boasting no SIDS deaths since 2010, says that talking about this uncomfortable topic — and then doing something about it — could mean a matter of life and death.
Because while there are causes of SIDS that cannot be explained (nor prevented), there are a number of things parents can do to make for safer sleep for their infants, minimizing the risk.
Here are six things parents can do to minimize SIDS risk, according to Sideras:
It's important for new parents to follow these recommendations — and then cut yourself a break. Being a new parent is physically and mentally exhausting. It's natural to worry (a lot) about your new baby, but once you've done everything you can, try and get some sleep.
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