Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is a mystery the medical world has been attempting to solve for decades. Though the root cause of SIDS remains unknown, researchers have identified a few ways to reduce a newborn’s risk.
Laura Hillman, MD, a neonatologist and professor emeritus in the Department of Child Health at the MU School of Medicine, has studied SIDS for nearly 50 years. In 1972, she co-founded Infant Loss Resources, a Missouri-based nonprofit dedicated to helping families avoid SIDS while providing grief support to those who have lost children.
“By definition, SIDS is the sudden, unexpected death of an infant during sleep,” Hillman said. “It can occur any time during the first year of life, but there is a peak distribution between 2 and 4 months of age.”
Over the years, Hillman has investigated countless potential causes of SIDS.
“I can’t tell you how many papers I've written on proposed causes of SIDS that we found weren’t valid theories,” she said. “Though it continues to be a mystery, there is some strong data suggesting certain factors that put babies at risk.”
To lower the risk, Hillman offered the following three suggestions to parents:
- Routine Prenatal Care: Hillman said prematurity is a significant risk factor for SIDS, and women who undergo routine prenatal care are less likely to deliver prematurely.
“Prenatal care is an essential element to avoiding infant loss,” she said. “If you think you are pregnant, visit your obstetrician as soon as possible so he or she can accurately establish your dates and help guide you toward a healthy pregnancy.”
Once the pregnancy is confirmed, Hillman said it’s important to continue seeing the obstetrician at regular intervals and to take his or her instruction to heart. She also said to be vigilant. Any time you have a question or feel like something might be wrong, don’t hesitate to contact your provider.
- Proper Sleep Habits: In 1977, Hillman began studying whether sleep position plays a role in the development of SIDS. At the time, doctors across the globe were telling parents that stomach sleeping was both safe and preferential.
“Though our research did not confirm a clear correlation between stomach sleeping and SIDS, a group of Australian researchers were able to reach that conclusion in 1992,” Hillman said. “From there, the National Institutes of Health began to strongly support back sleeping, and as a result, the SIDS rate is about half of what it was back in 1992.”
In addition to back sleeping, Hillman said it’s important for infants to sleep in a crib — not in their parents’ bed.
“Babies need to have their own sleeping area that is clear of items such as pillows, blankets and stuffed animals that could restrict their airways and movements,” she said. “Sleeping sacks are a great option for keeping babies warm and on their backs while they sleep.”
- Breastfeed When Possible: Hillman said SIDS tends to be more prominent in bottle-fed babies than breastfed babies.
“No one knows exactly why this is the case,” she said. “I have studied a number of potential nutrient-related reasons but haven’t come up with anything conclusive. We do know, however, that breastfeeding generally leads to healthier babies, so we always encourage moms to breastfeed if they can.”
Meanwhile, Hillman cautioned against breastfeeding in bed, because it increases the likelihood of a dangerous sleeping situation. Instead, sit upright in a chair, and ensure you are awake and alert when feeding your infant.