SIDS Risk More Than Sleeping Environment

SIDS Risk: More Than 'Sleeping Environment' Study finds 'Back to Sleep' messages worked, but so did lower smoking and teen pregnancy rates
WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 2, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- A baby's sleeping environment is not the whole story when it comes to the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), a new analysis affirms.

Each year, about 3,500 infants die suddenly in the United States from no obvious cause, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A majority of those deaths are labeled as SIDS -- a phenomenon that researchers still do not completely understand.

One thing that's clear is that an infant's sleeping environment is key: In the 1990s, experts launched public campaigns to encourage parents to put their infants on their backs to sleep, remove soft bedding out of the crib, and take other "safe sleeping" steps.

Since then, SIDS deaths in the United States have plummeted.

The new study, published online Dec. 2 in the journal Pediatrics, adds to evidence that those public health messages worked, but it also highlights the role of other influences in SIDS risk, the researchers said.

"The 'Back to Sleep' campaign has been one of the most successful public health campaigns of our time," said lead researcher Dr. Richard Goldstein, who is with the pediatric advanced care team at Boston Children's Hospital/Dana-Farber Cancer Center.

"But," he added, "the sleep environment is not the whole story."

"These days," Goldstein said, "most infants diagnosed with SIDS are not found sleeping prone [on the belly]."

Studies have shown that there are "intrinsic" factors that make certain babies especially vulnerable to unsafe sleeping conditions, Goldstein explained.

For example, babies exposed to smoking, either in the womb or after birth, are at heightened SIDS risk. On the other hand, infants who are breast-fed and those whose moms had consistent prenatal care are at relatively lower SIDS risk.

Researchers are also learning more about the "underlying biology" of SIDS, Goldstein said. It's thought, for example, that infants who die of SIDS have abnormalities in the brain system that normally rouses someone from sleep if there's not enough oxygen.

One theory on SIDS is that it involves a "triple risk," Goldstein said. That is, SIDS strikes when infants with an underlying vulnerability face an external stressor (like belly-sleeping) during a critical period of development.

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