Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is one of the biggest fears of new parents—in part because there are so many unanswered questions about why some babies die suddenly in their sleep. SIDS is the leading cause of death among Canadian babies from a month to a year old. For years, parents have been told to put their babies to sleep on their backs to help avoid SIDS, even though the cause of the deaths has been unknown. Now, new research is starting to find some answers. The good news is these answers support the current sleep guidelines.
A new study from the University of Adelaide in Australia and Harvard Medical School found an abnormality in the part of the brain that affects things like breathing, and control of head and neck movement. This could be why putting babies to sleep on their front increases their risk of SIDS.
The study looked at 55 cases of SIDS in the US and found that preemies and boys were more likely to have the abnormality.
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Though the study’s researchers point out that they still haven’t found the exact cause of SIDS, it’s becoming clear that there are underlying factors that make some babies more vulnerable than others.
The abnormality scientists found affects the transmission of a neuro-peptide, which helps control breathing and heartbeat. “An infant with this abnormality is likely to have impaired respiratory and motor responses to life-threatening challenges during sleep,” says Fiona Bright, research associate in the Adelaide Medical School at University of Adelaide. “While they may be otherwise healthy looking, there is an inability for that child’s brain and body to respond appropriately to an event in which the child is deprived of oxygen in some way.”
The research reinforces that SIDS is in no way a parent’s fault, but it also offers hope that there are ways for parents to be proactive in preventing deaths. Putting your baby to sleep on his back can reduce the chance that he will be in a situation where he will have compromised breathing and need to turn his head.
Unfortunately, earlier research has found that fewer than half of parents put their babies to sleep on their backs all the time. This new study should offer parents even more reason to follow this and other safe sleep guidelines, like putting babies to sleep in a crib by themselves without bumpers and loose bedding, keeping the temperature moderate and not smoking in the house.
Following sleep guidelines is simple, supported by science and free. And it gives you one less thing to worry about.