What You Can Do to Prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

It's every parent's worst nightmare. A seemingly healthy baby dies suddenly—without recognizable cause or explanation—leaving the family stricken with grief, loss, and confusion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, is the leading cause of death among infants ages 1 to 12 months, with the majority of deaths occurring between the ages of 2 and 4 months. In the United States, 4,500 infants die from no obvious cause every year.

For centuries SIDS has claimed the youngest lives but experts still can't pin point a direct cause of the condition. Recently, progress has been made through research funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) suggesting that infants who die of SIDS have brain stem abnormalities. The brain stem controls heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, and arousal. When SIDS babies lack oxygen, they don't wake up. Putting babies to sleep on their backs and clearing sleeping areas of soft bedding, which can inhibit the flow of oxygen, help reduce the risk.

Other NICHD research shows the immune, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems all concurrently in a critical stage of development when SIDS babies die. These infants also appear to have an underlying muscle weakness that interferes with a normal reaction to oxygen depletion.   

What we do know about SIDS is that there are environmental and demographic risk factors associated with the condition including: African American and Native American babies; low birth weight and preterm babies; infants born to very young women and infants born to women who smoke during pregnancy. It also appears to be more common during the colder months and affects boys (60 percent) more than baby girls.

Keeping Your Baby Safe

Here, some ways to guard against this devastating condition:

  1. Follow all recommended guidelines during pregnancy to ensure you'll have a healthy, full-term baby. Premature babies are more vulnerable to SIDS.
  2. Always put your baby to sleep on her back, since infants who sleep on their stomach or sides seem to be at much higher risk of experiencing SIDS. Researchers believe stomach sleeping puts pressure on the jaw thereby narrowing the airway and hampering breathing.
  3. Tummy sleeping combined with a too-soft area can "trap" exhaled air causing baby to "rebreath" air with less oxygen. Use a firm mattress and cllear baby's crib of toys, pillows and other soft items since they can also pose a suffocation danger.
  4. Keep your newborn's bassinet in your room for the first six months so you'll be close by if she experiences distress.
  5. Dress your infant in light layers for sleeping and keep the bedroom at a temperature comfortable for an adult in short sleeves. It's believed that being too warm causes baby to sleep too deeply, making it more difficult to wake up during breathing difficulties.
  6. One study found that using a fan in the room where baby sleeps reduced the incidence of SIDS by 72 percent.
  7. Keep your baby out of your bed, since adult bedding can be hazardous to a newborn.
  8. Breastfeeding helps lower the incidence of illness (colds, the flu and childhood viruses) associated with the condition.  
  9. Offer baby a pacifier. Pacifier use and SIDS seem to be connected as well. If breastfeeding, wait until nursing is well established at four weeks before using the pacifier.
  10. Contact your pediatrician if your baby is prone to breathing difficulty or gags excessively after spitting up. These can be signs that she's at increased risk for SIDS.


American Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Institute


Kids Health/Nemours Foundation


National Institutes of Health


SIDS Network


The American Academy of Pediatrics