What is Cot Death?

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  • Written By: Emma Lloyd
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2019
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Cot death, also called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS, is a term which describes the death of a baby which occurs unexpectedly without any underlying cause. When a baby dies from cot death, an autopsy does not reveal any underlying disease or disorder that may have caused the death. While it is not possible to prevent SIDS altogether, it is possible to reduce the likelihood considerably by understanding and eliminating the risk factors involved.

SIDS has long been a tragic and mysterious ailment, due to the total absence of any known cause of sudden infant death. The syndrome has been linked to causes such as vitamin C deficiency, inner ear damage, and anemia. The strongest evidence for an underlying cause of SIDS comes from a study of babies who died in this way. The study compared the brains of infants who died from SIDS, and infants who died of other causes.

The results of the study suggest that babies who die of SIDS have an abnormality which prevents the brain receiving signals if the body is deficient in oxygen. The brains of babies who die from cot death do not correctly use serotonin, a brain chemical which regulates breathing and sleep as well as mood and body temperature. Because of this abnormality, a baby’s risk of being smothered is increased when they are exposed to cot death syndrome risk factors.


Blood levels of carbon dioxide may rise during sleep for many reasons. The normal reaction for an individual in this case is simply to wake up and change position to aid breathing. This is an automatic reaction for most people. In babies who die from cot death, however, this reflex is impaired.

It is not possible to eliminate the risk of SIDS altogether, nor is it possible to identify whether a baby is at risk due to a serotonin defect. This means it is important to minimize risk factors for all babies, particularly those under one year old. There are several simple ways in which cot death risks can be minimized.

One of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce the risk is to ensure a baby always sleeps on his or her back, rather than on the side or stomach. This sleeping position ensures the baby’s airways stay open and help prevent bedding covering the baby’s mouth and nose. A firm, dry, clean mattress is best, with no tears in the lining or sags which may compromise airways. Blankets and sheets should be firmly tucked in over the baby so that they cannot become loose and cover his or her face. In addition, experts suggest a baby should always sleep in his or her own bed, rather than sleeping with an adult, particularly when the adult is a heavy sleeper.

The SIDS risk is also reduced if a woman does not smoke and limits exposure to secondhand smoke during pregnancy. In addition the risk is reduced if a baby’s exposure to second-hand smoke is minimized. Some studies suggest that breast-feeding reduces the risks, and it has also been suggested that using a pacifier for sleep reduces the possibility of sudden infant death.


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