It is, by far, the worst thing that can happen to a new parent: You lay your sweet baby down to sleep, only to later discover that she has stopped breathing, her precious life over before it had barely even begun.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, is defined as the unexplained death, usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old. It is tragic to say the least, and every year in the United States, about 3,500 parents are forced to deal with this unimaginable pain. Their babies are alive and happy one minute and gone the next, leaving parents with overwhelming uncertainty and unanswered questions.
SIDS has been striking completely understandable and justified fear in the hearts of parents for generations, but there are some glimmers of hope in the medical community that may begin to set minds at ease. In Seattle, a doctor claims to have discovered the true cause of SIDS—plus a way to prevent it—while other reports show that a simple EKG test at birth can determine a baby’s susceptibility to SIDS.
Chris Blake is the CEO of First Candle, a nonprofit organization that has been “saving babies’ lives, spearheading research, educating new moms and dads, and bringing hope to grieving families for decades.” In his role, Blake plans and directs First Candle’s programs, while also staying abreast of—and sharing—these most current SIDS research and education/advocacy efforts. Here, we talk with him about the race to a cure and the steps new parents can take today to avoid becoming such a devastating statistic.
What are the most recent developments in SIDS research? And is there government and/or corporate support assisting in these efforts?
The biggest thing happening in SIDS research right now is that medical examiners are able to do a more thorough job at death scene investigations, and more and more deaths are being attributed to suffocation instead of SIDS. This is causing the number of SIDS rates to decline, but the number of infant suffocation rates to rise. Overall, the combined rate has remained steady for about 10 years.
There is recent SIDS research on the effects of altitude, the effectiveness of hospital programs providing safe sleep education immediately following the birth of the child and the risks involved with putting babies to sleep on couches. The U.S. government continues to be very much involved in supporting research. However, recently, the overall amount of money the government dedicates to research has dwindled, and this has led to many of our nation’s best researchers going to the UK or Australia, where the research is being funded. This is a bad situation in all areas of medical research, not just research around SIDS.
Why has it been so difficult to determine a cause and cure for SIDS?
The current definition of SIDS is the sudden death of an baby under one year old, which remains unexplained after a thorough investigation. This investigation normally includes an autopsy, an examination of the death scene and a review of the victim and family case history. So it’s often called a diagnosis of exclusion, or the diagnosis given when all other causes have been ruled out.
What is the validity of claims by the Seattle doctor to have discovered the cause of SIDS and the reports about EKG tests and SIDS risk?
In Seattle, Dr. Ruben’s research regarding inner ear dysfunction as one cause of SIDS is fascinating and deserves more attention that it is getting. And the idea of irregular heartbeats as a cause of SIDS has been around for a long time. Dr. Kinney’s research around brain stem abnormalities has the most attention from the scientific community; however, none of these research studies have been conclusive. More funding is needed to continue to look at the root causes of SIDS.
What is the most important thing parents need to know, today, in minimizing their child’s risk of SIDS?
- Always place babies to sleep on their backs during naps and at nighttime. Because babies sleeping on their sides are more likely to accidentally roll onto their stomachs, the side position is not as safe as the back and is not recommended.
- Don’t cover the heads of babies with a blanket or over-bundle them in clothing and blankets.
- Avoid letting the baby get too hot. The baby could be too hot if you notice sweating, damp hair, flushed cheeks, heat rash and rapid breathing. Dress the baby lightly for sleep. Set the room temperature in a range that is comfortable for a lightly clothed adult.
- Place your baby in a safety-approved crib with a firm mattress and a well-fitting sheet.
- Place the crib in an area that is always smoke-free.
- Don’t place babies to sleep on adult beds, chairs, sofas, waterbeds or cushions.
- Toys and other soft bedding, including fluffy blankets, comforters, pillows, stuffed animals and wedges, should not be placed in the crib with the baby. These items can impair the infant’s ability to breathe if they cover his face.
- Breastfeed your baby. Experts recommend that mothers feed their children human milk at least through the first year of life.
- The safest place for your baby to sleep is in the room where you sleep. Place the baby’s crib or bassinet near your bed, within an arm’s reach. This makes it easier to breastfeed and to bond with your baby.
To learn more about SIDS prevention and the First Candle initiatives, visit firstcandle.org.