SIDS nightmare explained?

New research points to brain defect that causes infant deaths

Pam Borchardt lost her daughter, Becky, to sudden infant death syndrome 15 years ago, but she still thinks about her every day. She wishes she knew exactly why her baby died.

While the exact cause of SIDS remains unknown, new findings in a study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association puts doctors closer than ever to understanding the disease and providing answers for parents like Borchardt.

The latest findings in the longterm study headed by Dr. Hannah Kinney at Children's Hospital Boston suggest that some babies are inherently more prone to SIDS due to abnormalities affecting the use and recycling of serotonin in the brain stem. With serotonin functions askew, the brain might be unable to control vital functions like breathing and blood pressure, or recognize a buildup of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, the study found.

"These findings provide evidence that SIDS is not a mystery but a disorder that we can investigate with scientific methods and some day may be able to identify and treat," says Kinney in a release from the National Institutes of Health.

If a sleeping child snuggles into a blanket or lies near a stuffed animal, she can end up breathing and rebreathing her own exhaled carbon dioxide. Normally the body would recognize the oxygen deficiency and the child would automatically take a deep breath. In SIDS babies, that alarm doesn't go off. The more carbon dioxide that gets in the bloodstream, the deeper they fall into sleep until something clicks off in the brain and they can no longer breathe on their own.

Studies have shown that putting babies to sleep on their backs dramatically decreases the risk of SIDS because airflow is much less likely to be obstructed. Although the number of SIDS deaths in Illinois has dropped by 68 percent since the beginning of the Back to Sleep campaign in 1993, SIDS is still the leading cause of death in the post-natal period. And according to Borchardt, now co-executive director of SIDS of Illinois, 60 percent of babies who die of SIDS are still found sleeping on their stomachs despite the warnings.

"Each piece of research builds and increases our knowledge as parents," Borchardt says. "If something so simple as putting babies to sleep on their backs is enough to get some babies to survive, why take the risk by not doing it?"

Katie Holland


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