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Unfortunately, no one really knows what causes SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome -- the unexplained death of an infant younger than 1 year). Babies who are younger than 6 months -- when 90 percent of SIDS deaths occur -- are particularly vulnerable. And even though the back-to-sleep campaign (teaching parents to put babies to sleep on their backs, not their bellies) of more than a decade ago has decreased the incidence of SIDS deaths by more than 50 percent, SIDS remains the number one cause of infant death in the United States. In fact, some 2,500 babies die from SIDS every year in this country, according to the National Institutes of Health, and most of them appear perfectly normal. There is some speculation that babies who die of SIDS have an abnormality in the neural network that controls blood pressure, breathing, and temperature regulation. Or these babies may not produce adequate serotonin, a brain chemical that transmits nerve impulses that would cause a baby who wasn't getting enough oxygen to wake up. We do know that there are demographic and environmental risks -- African-American and Native American babies die of SIDS at two to three times the national average, for example, and babies who are born to women who smoked during pregnancy or to very young women are at a higher risk. Preterm and low birth weight infants are also at higher risk. --Dana Sullivan
Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2006. Updated 2009
The answers from our experts are for educational purposes only. Please always refer to your child's pediatrician and mental health expert for more in-depth advice.