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What Is SIDS? What a Pediatrician Wants You to Know

You can’t 100% prevent it, but these steps can lower the risk.

Bringing home a newborn from the hospital is exciting, transformative, and—yes—a little (and sometimes a lot) scary. Your sleepy little one looks tiny and vulnerable, and you obviously want to keep him healthy, safe, and protected.

For many parents, the fear of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, weighs heavily on their minds when they lay their newborn in the crib at night. While it’s true that it’s the leading cause of death for children under the age of one, the rate of SIDS has been dropping steadily for two decades; it now affects one out of 2,000 babies, according to National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD).

SIDS is defined as the sudden and unexplained death of an infant, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It most commonly occurs to babies between one and four months old.

Despite its relative rarity, SIDS makes parents uneasy because it’s so seemingly random. “What makes SIDS so frustrating is it can’t be predicted or prevented, and we just don’t know why it happens,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Hospital and chief medical editor at HealthiNation. There’s a chance that an underlying and undiscovered medical condition may be behind SIDS.

While much of SIDS remains a mystery, doctors do know a couple important points: Babies do not suffer during SIDS, and vaccines do not cause SIDS, according to Dr. Parikh. (Learn more myths about childhood vaccines here.)

Steps to Lower the Risk of SIDS

While SIDS cannot be totally prevented, several steps have been linked to lowering the risk of SIDS. Here’s what parents can do to minimize the risk for their infant, according to Dr. Parikh.

  • Make regular doctor visits while pregnant. Healthy babies who are delivered at full term are more likely to live past infancy that premature babies, according to the American SIDS Institute.

  • Don’t smoke or drink alcohol while pregnant. A 2013 study in Pediatrics found that alcohol abuse during pregnancy was a significant risk factor for SIDS (and doubled the risk of other types of infant death).

  • Place babies on their backs while sleeping. Save “tummy time” for playtime when an adult is able to supervise, according to the NICHHD.

  • Make sure babies sleep in their own cribs. Co-sleeping with adults or other children is not recommended for babies. That includes falling asleep with your baby on the couch or after breastfeeding. If you’re tempted to sleep with your baby because they’re not sleeping well, these tips for troubleshooting baby sleep issues may help.

  • Use a firm sleeping surface in your baby’s crib. “Avoid surfaces that are too soft, like pillows, waterbeds, or fluffy blankets,” says Dr. Parikh.

  • Do not use bumpers in the crib. Babies may suffocate on them if they move too close to them.

  • Keep blankets and stuffed animals out of the crib. You might be tempted to make their cribs more “comfortable,” but babies don’t need the extra blankets and pillows that adults prefer. These objects can wrap around the baby or suffocate them, and a bare crib is best.

  • Offer your baby a pacifier, but don’t force it. A 2012 study in Maternal and Child Health Journal found that pacifier use decreased the risk of SIDS, even when some other risk factors (like soft bedding) were present. But again, don’t force it. Do not tie or attach the pacifier to the crib or baby (this is a choking hazard).

  • Breastfeed your baby if possible. Exclusive breastfeeding in newborns cut the risk of SIDS in half, according to a study in Pediatrics. The study found that even partial breastfeeding was linked to a reduced risk. It’s not entirely clear why breastfeeding is beneficial at preventing SIDS, but breastfeeding has a number of benefits and is recommended for at least the first year of life by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Here’s more information on breastfeeding your newborn.

Preeti Parikh, MD

This video features information from Preeti Parikh, MD. Dr. Parikh, a board-certified pediatrician affiliated with The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, is HealthiNation's chief medical editor.

Duration: 2:18. Last Updated On: Jan. 16, 2019, 7:57 p.m.
Reviewed by: Mera Goodman, MD, Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: Jan. 16, 2019
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