What happens in Sudden infant death syndrome, exactly?

What is it?

Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, is the sudden, unexpected death of a child who is less than one years old. By definition, the cause of death in SIDS must remain unexplained even after autopsy and death scene investigation.

The rates of SIDS vary in developed countries from 1 in 1 000 to 1 in 10 000. It is the most common cause of death in children between the ages of one month to one year. SIDS is more common in boys than in girls.

What causes it?

Nobody knows what causes SIDS, but it is commonly thought that it occurs when a child with a predisposition is exposed to an external trigger. The fact that SIDS is more common in boys suggests a genetic link. Other factors have been found to be not placing the baby to sleep on their back, sharing a bed with the baby, smoking during pregnancy, and parents who drink alcohol. Vaccinations, higher age of the mother, and breastfeeding are associated with a decreased risk of SIDS.

What happens during it?

Our cells need oxygen to convert the energy in sugar into energy they can use. In this conversion process they also release carbon dioxide. This is particularly important to our brain, and it can’t survive for long without constantly bringing new oxygen to it and taking carbon dioxide away.

There is some evidence that SIDS is linked to problems with breathing. One suggested mechanism starts with the infant sleeping in a position where a pocket of air forms from, for example, a blanket. The infant keeps breathing the same air, and the oxygen is soon replaced by carbon dioxide. Normally, at this point, the infant’s brain would notice that there’s something wrong and wake them up or make them change position. For some reason the infant just keeps sleeping. This leads to the slow deprivation of oxygen in the brain, and to coma, when changing position is not even possible anymore.

It has been suggested that up to 50% of SIDS cases would be the result of bed sharing. Close contact with the other person can deprive infants from fresh air, and because of the mechanisms described, they wouldn’t notice anything before it’s too late.

How can it be treated?

For obvious reasons, there is no treatment for SIDS. Preventive measures can and should, however, be taken: the infant should be placed on their back to sleep in a separate bed without excessive bedding, for example. Supporting parents whose baby has had SIDS is very important, as the experience can understandably be extremely traumatic.


Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudden_infant_death_syndrome, http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Sudden-infant-death-syndrome/Pages/Introduction.aspx, http://www.parentingscience.com/what-is-SIDS.html, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19224543, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2246416/


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