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Unraveling the Mystery of SIDS

Mark A. Brandenburg, MD

Author of Child Safe : A Practical Guide for Preventing Childhood Injuries

It is a story heard all too often and our worst nightmare- an infant stops breathing and dies while asleep. Every year in the United States nearly 7,000 infants die in their sleep. The diagnosis in these tragic cases is usually Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). For many years the cause of SIDS was unknown. However, the recent success of "Back-to-Sleep," a national public education campaign, brought to light that the position in which an infant sleeps can affect the risk of SIDS. "Back-to-Sleep" first promoted the idea of placing infants on their backs to sleep in 1994. Since then we have seen a decrease in the rate of SIDS by 40%.

A recent study in the journal Pediatrics reviewed the deaths of 119 sleeping infants (less than 2 years of age) in St. Louis over a four-year period. The results showed that a majority of these infants were found either sleeping face down, with their faces covered by bedding material or were sleeping in an unsafe environment. In fact, only 8.4 percent of these deaths involved infants who were sleeping properly (i.e., alone, on their backs with head and face uncovered and on a firm mattress in a safe crib).

In 47.1 percent of the infant deaths, a shared sleep surface was involved. That means the infant was sleeping in a bed, couch or chair alongside another person, usually an adult. Often the other sleeping person inadvertently smothered the infant.

Most infant deaths in this study also occurred on a sleep surface not designed for infants. Even when sleeping alone, infants are at risk of suffocation in adult beds, chairs or couches. Heavy bedding material, such as bedspreads, comforters, quilts and pillows can cause smothering, too. In addition to the risk of suffocation, injury can occur if a baby becomes trapped between the mattress of an adult bed and the bed board or wall.

As we learn more and more about SIDS we are realizing that many of these unfortunate deaths are the result of suffocation. Just remember the following rules of sleeping safety and your baby should do just fine.

  • When laying your baby down to sleep, always place her on her back.

  • Place your sleeping infant only on a firm mattress in a safe crib; never in an adult bed, couch, chair or anywhere else.

  • And remember, no heavy blankets, bed spreads, quilts, comforters, pillows or large stuffed animals. These items could obstruct a baby's breathing.

  • Never allow your baby to sleep alongside another person, be it child or adult. The risk of smothering by the other person is too great.

As always, take care and stay child-safe.


Mark A. Brandenburg, MD

Emergency Physician at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Board Certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine

Fellow of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM)

Author of CHILD SAFE: A Practical Guide for Preventing Childhood Injuries Go to http://www.BabyandChildSafety.com for information about this book.

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