What is SIDS?

J. Beam

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the sudden and unexplained death of an infant under the age of one year. The majority of SIDS cases are babies who die in their sleep. SIDS is a tragic occurrence that leaves parents despairing and often blaming themselves, because in most cases, doctors can find no medical reason for death.

Exposure to tobacco smoke can increase an infant's chances of dying of SIDS.
Exposure to tobacco smoke can increase an infant's chances of dying of SIDS.

The number of SIDS cases has declined in recent years, largely owing to an increased awareness and preventative education for new parents. Due to the recognition of known risk factors and learning proper sleeping techniques, the annual SIDS rate has been cut in half since the early 1990s. While there is still much to learn about SIDS, it is known that the risk factors increase under certain circumstances. These include premature birth with a birth weight of 3.5 lbs (1.588 kilograms) or less, babies born to teenage mothers, exposure to tobacco smoke or narcotics in utero or after birth, and babies who have had older siblings die from SIDS.

Too much padding in a crib, from blankets and pillows to stuffed animals, can result in SIDS.
Too much padding in a crib, from blankets and pillows to stuffed animals, can result in SIDS.

Experts suggest that one way for a mother to reduce her baby’s risk of SIDS is to seek routine medical care early in her pregnancy. Breastfeeding when possible is also recommended, as studies have shown that breast-fed babies have a lower rate of SIDS than formula-fed babies. Expectant mothers should also avoid exposure to tobacco smoke and other narcotic drugs.

It is also believed that an infant’s sleeping arrangements can contribute to SIDS. An infant who sleeps in a crib with too much padding, whether from blankets, pillows, or stuffed animals, can begin to inhale the carbon dioxide expelled from his lungs if the padding covers his face. Similarly, sleeping on the stomach increases the risk of SIDS. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends placing infants to sleep on their back or side and using only a firm, properly fitting crib mattress with a fitted sheet and no other blankets, pillows, or stuffed animals.

When putting an infant to bed, make sure she is dressed comfortably for the room temperature, but do not overdress her. The risk of SIDS can also be reduced by utilizing monitors with infants who are already at risk. Any mother of an at-risk infant can discuss monitors with her child’s pediatrician. Awareness of risk factors and prevention are the most effective ways to reduce the rate of SIDS. If you have an infant or are expecting, talk to your doctor for more information.

Stuffed animals in a crib can raise the risk of SIDS.
Stuffed animals in a crib can raise the risk of SIDS.

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Discussion Comments


@BanjoBill - I also heard part of that story on the radio. That's actually why I'm researching it right now.

I heard them say that Wayne County hasn't labeled a death as SIDS related in four years because 'true' SIDS causes haven't been found. Apparently a lot of the deaths that fell into the SIDS statistics in the past were caused from the babies sleeping in unsafe sleeping environments. So very sad.


@BanjoBill - I caught that particular program as well. I heard them say that there were 50 to 60 SIDS related deaths in Wayne County, MI every year. The bulk of them are in Detroit, but they also said that many of the supposed 'SIDS' related deaths were preventable and, therefore, not actually a result of SIDS. Regardless of the terminology, infant death is a terribly sad thing and my heart goes out to anyone who has lost their baby.


I was listening to a program on NPR on my ay home from work and they said that there is a very high concentration of SIDS in Wayne County, Michigan. Has anyone heard about this?


I once knew a woman who had been left in charge of her sister's baby while her sister and her brother-in-law were at dinner. The baby was sleeping in another room and all the girl had to do was be there for emergencies. Even though she had checked on the baby regularly, when the mother came home and went in to look, the child was blue, and they didn't manage to save him.

Not only was it incredibly sad for the parents, it also completely wrecked the relationship between the sisters.

One sister couldn't bring herself to forgive the other, and the other couldn't really forgive herself either, although in reality there wasn't anything that could have been done differently.

SIDS can destroy families.

If you have suffered from a loss like this you should definitely try counseling so that it doesn't do more damage than it already has.


One of the tragic things about SIDS is that many of the deaths could have been prevented. Unfortunately, Dr Spock, a well known baby care specialist wrote a book which included the advice to let your baby sleep on its stomach.

Millions of women trusted the book as the most modern advice they could have for their baby and they did what we know now can seriously raise the risk of SIDS.

It was such a small thing, and nothing you could really blame the doctor for, as he had no way to know that one position was more dangerous than another.

And intuitively, a baby sleeping on its back seems like it would be in more danger of choking if it brought up some milk in the night.

Just a terrible tragedy all around. I'm so grateful they have now reduced the chances of a baby dying of SIDS.


As an expectant mother I have wondered what causes sids, but as others have mentioned here although there are different causes it seems sids is not completely preventable.

However, it seems there are many changes you can make to reduce your chances such as not sleeping with your baby, and keeping the crib free of miscellaneous items.


@JaneAir - That is very sad. And what's also sad is that even though we had a lot more information now, SIDS still isn't totally preventable. Even if the mother takes precautions, if the baby is high risk, SIDS could still occur.


When I was growing up I actually had a neighbor whose son died of SIDS. It was really sad, especially because the pregnancy itself was difficult and high risk.

At that time we didn't have all of the information we have now about SIDS. It just seemed so sad and senseless for a baby to die for seemingly no reason.


@SauteePan - These SID stories are so sad. I am glad that your doctor created awareness of these SID statistics.

I can see how a parent may want to co sleep with a baby especially if the mother is breastfeeding. It makes it easier for her, but it does raise the SIDs risk factors significantly because when the parent is asleep they can’t really tell if the baby is faced up or down because they can roll around in the bed.

If they are in a crib sleeping on their back they will not be able to roll to their face because they don’t have the strength to do that. In a bed they are usually on their side which is why they can roll in either direction.

They say that the SIDs risk remains high until a baby is a year old. After that the risk reduces significantly. I always had my baby sleep in her crib.


I remember when my children were babies; my main concern was learning how to prevent SIDS. I was told by my doctor not to leave anything in the crib including stuffed animals because a baby could suffocate if they land their face on one of these toys.

He also told me to make sure that I put my baby to sleep on her back which was the safest position for the baby to sleep in. I also remember that the doctor told me to make sure that the baby sleeps in the crib and not in the bed with me.

He said that there have been a number of SIDS stories in which a baby has died because of rolling over to the wrong position which causes them to be smothered. My doctors said that co sleeping like this has lead to a lot of SIDs deaths and he does not recommend it.

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