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Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

What is SIDS?

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the sudden and unexplained death of a baby younger than 1 year old. SIDS is sometimes called crib death because the death happens when a baby is sleeping in a crib. It’s one of the leading causes of death in babies from ages 1 month to 1 year. It happens most often between 2 and 4 months old.

What causes SIDS?

Researchers don't know the exact cause of SIDS. Studies have shown that some babies who die from SIDS have the following:

  • Odd brain functioning. Some babies have problems with the part of the brain that helps control breathing and waking during sleep. Babies born with problems in other parts of the brain or body may also be more likely to die from SIDS.
  • Differences in genes. Some genes and the environment may work together to increase the risk for SIDS.
  • Odd heart functioning. Some studies found a link between heart function and SIDS.
  • Infection. Some babies who die from SIDS have respiratory infections before death. SIDS happens more often during the colder months, when respiratory illnesses are more common.

Who is at risk for SIDS?

Most babies who die from SIDS have one or more risk factors. Some risk factors are preventable, but others are not. There are many risk factors for SIDS. They may include the following.

Factors for the mother

  • Being a young mother
  • Smoking during pregnancy
  • Late or no prenatal care

Factors for the baby and the environment

  • Preterm birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Sleeping on the belly
  • Being around cigarette smoke
  • Sleeping on a soft surface
  • Sleeping with loose blankets or pillows
  • Sharing a bed with parents or siblings
  • Being too warm

What are the symptoms of SIDS?

There are no symptoms of SIDS that can be used to prevent it.

How is SIDS diagnosed?

The diagnosis of SIDS is made when the cause of death is unexplained after a complete investigation. An investigation includes:

  • Examining the body after death
  • Examining where the death took place
  • Reviewing the baby’s symptoms or illnesses before death
  • Any other related health history

How is SIDS treated?

There is no specific treatment for SIDS.

Can SIDS be prevented?

There is no way to guess which babies will die from SIDS. But known risk factors can be controlled. They include:

  • Get prenatal care. Early and regular prenatal care can help reduce the risk for SIDS. You should also follow a healthy diet and not smoke or use drug or alcohol while you are pregnant. These things may reduce the chance of having a premature or low-birth-weight baby. Premature or low-birth-weight babies are at higher risk for SIDS.
  • Put your baby on his or her back for sleep and naps.  Place your baby on his or her back for all sleeping until he or she is 1-year-old.  Don't lay your baby down on his or her side or belly for sleep or naps.
  • Put your baby in other positions while he or she is awake. Putting your baby in other positions helps your baby grow stronger. It also helps prevent your baby from having a misshaped head. When your baby is awake, hold your baby or allow your baby time on his or her tummy as long as there is supervision. Try not to let your baby sit in a seat or swing for long periods of time.
  • Use proper bedding. Your baby should sleep on a firm mattress or other firm surface covered by a fitted sheet. Do not use fluffy blankets or comforters. Do not let your baby sleep on a waterbed, sofa, sheepskin, pillow, or other soft materials. Do not put soft toys, pillows, or bumper pads in the crib while your baby is younger than 1-year-old.
  • Avoid overheating. Keep your baby warm but not too warm. The temperature in your baby’s room should feel comfortable to you. Avoid over bundling, overdressing, or covering an infant's face or head.
  • Share a room. The AAP recommends that infants sleep in the same room as their parents, close to the parent's bed, but in a separate bed or crib appropriate for infants. This sleeping arrangement is recommended ideally for the baby's first year, but should at least be maintained for the first 6 months.
  • Avoid bed sharing. Don't put your baby to sleep in a bed with other children or on a sofa with another person. Don't share your bed with your baby. You can bring your baby to your bed for feedings and comforting. But return your baby to his or her crib for sleep. Bed sharing is not recommended for twins or other multiples.
  • Don't allow smoking around your baby. The risk of SIDS is higher for babies whose mothers smoked during pregnancy. Do not smoke when you are pregnant and do not let anyone smoke around your baby. Babies and young children exposed to smoke have more colds and other diseases, as well as a higher risk for SIDS.
  • Take your baby for checkups and vaccines. If your newborn baby seems sick, call your baby’s healthcare provider. Take your baby in for regular well-baby checkups and routine shots. Some studies show that fully vaccinating your child lowers the risk for SIDS. 
  • Breastfeed your baby. Give your baby only breastmilk for at least 6 months. This means no water, sugar water, or formula, unless your baby’s healthcare provider tells you to do so. This reduces the risk for SIDS and many other health problems.
  • Give your baby a pacifier during sleep time. You can give your baby a pacifier during the first year of life during routine sleep and nap time. But don't give your baby a pacifier if you breastfeed until breastfeeding is well established.
  • Avoid using cardiorespiratory monitors and commercial devices. Don't use wedges, positioners, or special mattresses to help decrease the risk for SIDS and sleep-related infant death. These devices have not been shown to prevent SIDS. In rare cases, they have resulted in the death of an infant.
  • Always place cribs, bassinets, and play yards in hazard-free areas. Be sure they are free of dangling cords, wires, or window coverings to reduce the risk for strangulation.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

If you or someone else in your home smokes, talk with your healthcare provider about quitting. If you have any questions or concerns about SIDS risk factors, talk with your baby’s healthcare provider.

Key points about SIDS

  • SIDS is the sudden and unexplained death of an infant younger than age 1. It is most common between 2 and 4 months old.
  • Researchers don't know the exact causes of SIDS.
  • There is no way to tell which babies will die from SIDS.
  • To lower the risk for SIDS, get regular prenatal care. Don't smoke during pregnancy.
  • To lower the risk for SIDS, your baby should sleep and take naps on his or her back.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
Online Medical Reviewer: Berry, Judith, PhD, APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/29/2015
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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