With new data, one step closer to unlocking SIDS

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: You head into your infant’s room for the 6 a.m. feeding and find your baby not moving, blue, cold to the touch. What should have been an early-morning bonding moment just turned into the worst day of your life.


SIDS deaths have dropped by about half since the American Academy of Pediatrics released its first recommendations in 1994. As this new research sinks in around the field, here are some tried-and-true tips proven to reduce the risk of SIDS.

  • Put your baby to sleep on his back. Sleeping on the stomach can raise the risk of suffocation.
  • Avoid fluffy pillows or blankets in your baby’s crib. Use a light sheet instead.
  • Don’t smoke. Prenatal and secondhand smoke has consistently been linked to SIDS, and when it comes to babies and cigarette smoke, there is no such thing as a “safe level.”
  • Don’t overheat your baby’s room.

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is exactly what it sounds like — the unexplained death of babies, the vast majority under 6 months old, that occurs without symptoms or warning.

New research has shed some light on this medical mystery, linking SIDS deaths to low levels of a hormone that relays signals between the brain and the respiratory system.

A study published in this week’sJournal of the American Medical Association found in 35 babies who had died of SIDS significantly lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that connects the brain stem, which controls breathing, heartbeats and other involuntary functions, and the rest of the body.

While not a “silver bullet” discovery, the news does contribute to a field that, until recently, has had few clear answers.

Without enough serotonin, the study suggests, some babies are less able to respond to respiratory “stressors,” like a blanket or mattress that covers their nose or mouth. The signal to the lungs to keep breathing or to the brain to wake up simply don’t get there.

“This is one of the most emotionally traumatic things that can happen to a new parent, so any breakthrough is big news,” says Dr. Leah Mooshil Durst, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

While SIDS has declined by about half since the mid-1990s, it is still the leading cause of death for infants under 1. It kills about 2,750 babies each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most of the drop has been attributed to awareness about preventative measures, like putting babies to sleep on their backs, rather than their stomachs, and avoiding exposure tosecondhand smoke. The “Back-to-Sleep” campaign, which was launched in 1994, has been credited with a big chunk of the decline — and those recommendations won’t change.

SIDS“When I see a new baby, the first thing I’m counseling the parents on is ‘Back-to-Sleep, Back-to-Sleep, Back-to-Sleep,'” Durst says. “You have to trust the numbers.”

But what little medical consensus there is around SIDS points to multiple factors, which explain why one baby dies and another with the same sleeping conditions does not.

Environment and genetics both play a role, but this new study pinpoints a third suspected cause: a preexisting vulnerability puts some babies more at risk than others.

“There is clearly something else going on in this baby’s brain,” Durst says. “We’re one step closer to figuring out what that is.”

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