How to Help Prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Cute Asian baby girl sucking thumb while sleeping peacefully in baby cot
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There are few things as tragic to the parents of a new baby as SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome. Unfortunately, even with all that has been done in recent years to raise awareness about how to reduce the risks of SIDS, we still don't know all of the risk factors, and SIDS remains the leading cause of death for infants outside the newborn period.​​

Although the rate of SIDS has fallen greatly since the introduction of the back-to-sleep campaign, an updated policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, although a little controversial, will hopefully help to reduce the rate of SIDS even more.

There has also been an update to the original Back to Sleep message, which changed to Safe to Sleep in 2012. The idea is now to focus on both "safe sleep environments and back sleeping as ways to reduce the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related causes of infant death."

Reducing the Risk of SIDS

The biggest gains in reducing the rates of SIDS have come from reducing known risk factors, especially with the recommendations that all babies be put to sleep on their back—the Back-to-Sleep campaign that began in 1994.

The rate of SIDS has decreased by just over 50% but remains at a steady rate of about 0.57 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Part of the reason that SIDS is still a problem is that experts just don't know all of the things that put a baby at risk, but there are also other things that parents could do to avoid risk factors that they don't always do. For example, about 10% to 20% of parents still put their babies to sleep on their stomachs, and some child care centers aren't aware of the importance of back sleeping.

SIDS Facts

SIDS, also known as "cot death" or "crib death," is usually defined as the sudden and unexplained death, even after a careful and complete investigation, of an infant under 1 year of age.

According to the AAP, other facts about SIDS include that it Is rare during a baby's first month of life and peaks when an infant is 2 to 3 months old.

SIDS is associated with the following risk factors:

  • Babies who sleep on a soft surface, including using a pillow, soft mattress, soft bedding, etc.
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Getting overheated
  • Having a mother who had late or no prenatal care
  • Having a mother who smoked during her pregnancy
  • Is a little more common during colder months of the year
  • Is more common in Black and American Indian and Alaska Native children
  • Male gender
  • May be less common in babies who use a pacifier
  • Preterm birth and/or low birth weight
  • Prone (stomach) sleeping

Another fact about SIDS is that commercial devices marketed to reduce the risk of SIDS, such as wedges, sleep positioners, special mattresses, and special sleep surfaces, have never been approved by the FDA to prevent SIDS.

SIDS Recommendations

Although many of the recommendations to reduce the risk of SIDS have been well known for some time, it is interesting to take a look at how the advice from the AAP has changed over the years.

While the original Back to Sleep SIDS' policy statements emphasized that you shouldn't put your baby to sleep on their stomach, it really didn't discourage side sleeping. That first report from the AAP Task Force on Infant Position and SIDS came out in 1992 and was simply named "Positioning and SIDS."

It stated that "the Academy recommends that healthy infants, when being put down for sleep, be positioned on their side or back." To be sure, that report, with the accompanying Back-to-Sleep campaign, had a great effect on reducing the rates of SIDS.

The next report on SIDS came out in 2000 and it noted a big decrease in the rate of SIDS, over 40%, because of the previous guidelines. However, because "SIDS remains the highest cause of infant death beyond the neonatal period," it made recommendations about other risk factors, including soft sleep surfaces and loose bedding, overheating, and maternal smoking.

The 2000 SIDS report also stated that back sleeping was preferred over side sleeping and that bedsharing or cosleeping may be hazardous.

The 2005 SIDS report from the AAP, "The Changing Concept of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: Diagnostic Coding Shifts, Controversies Regarding the Sleeping Environment, and New Variables to Consider in Reducing Risk," ended the side vs. back issue. The new recommendation became that infants should be put to sleep wholly on their back.

Other new recommendations included the idea that pacifiers might reduce the risk of SIDS and the concept of the "separate but proximate sleeping environment." Separate but proximate means babies should sleep in the same room as their mother, but in a crib, bassinet, or cradle instead of sharing mom's bed.

The Latest SIDS Recommendations

What's changed in the latest, 2011 SIDS report from the AAP?

One big difference is that the policy statement is focusing on safe sleep environments, in addition to talking about SIDS. So, in addition to continuing to recommend "back to sleep for every sleep," the new policy statement also states that parents should:

  • Avoid overheating
  • Keep soft objects and loose bedding (use a fitted sheet) out of the crib
  • Practice room-sharing without bed-sharing
  • Use a firm sleep surface in a crib, bassinet, or portable play yard

These recommendations aren't new, though. Advice to continue them consistently until infants are 12 months old is new, though. Also new in this report is a formal recommendation for breastfeeding.

The protective role of breastfeeding has been mentioned since the original 1992 SIDS report, but this is the first SIDS policy statement to state that "breastfeeding is recommended" because of the reduced risk of SIDS.

A recommendation that infants be immunized and get regular well child care is also new, although previous reports have also talked about the lack of evidence to link vaccines and SIDS together.

Other recommendations include:

  • Home cardiorespiratory monitors and commercial devices, like sleep positioners, shouldn't be used to try and reduce the risk of SIDS
  • Mothers should consider giving their babies a pacifier at bedtime and nap time
  • Pregnant women should get regular prenatal care and should avoid smoke exposure, alcohol, and illicit drug use during pregnancy and after birth

Hopefully, these new recommendations will help to get SIDS rates moving down again and also decrease rates of suffocation, asphyxia, and entrapment, which have actually been increasing.

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Article Sources
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  • American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement: SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Expansion of Recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment. Pediatrics 2011; 128:5 1030-1039.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics Technical Report: SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Expansion of Recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment. Pediatrics 2011; 128:5 e1341-e1367.