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Q&A: What is SIDS?

Q. I'm nervous about childbirth, but I'm even more scared about my baby dying after he's born. I've heard that babies can actually die in their sleep for no reason at all! How often does this happen? Is there any way to prevent it?

A. The condition you describe is called SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), and it's the number one cause of death in infants 1-2 months old. It's also one of the most tragic and frustrating conditions because doctors don't know what causes these babies to die; they only know that the babies stop breathing for some reason, usually when they're asleep. To minimize the risk of SIDS, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests the following:

  • Always put your baby to sleep on his back. Researchers believe that babies who sleep facedown run the risk of breathing in their own exhaled air, which contains toxic carbon dioxide. What's more, experts believe that SIDS babies may have an area in the brain that's underdeveloped. That area of the brain might be the one responsible for arousal and breathing; this would explain why a SIDS baby fails to wake himself up and gulp fresh air if he starts to suffocate.
  • Don't sleep with your baby in your bed because your baby might be suffocated by blankets or trapped between your headboard and your mattress; you might also roll onto your baby if you've been drinking alcohol or if you've taken any medication that makes you sleep more heavily than usual.
  • Make her crib as safe as possible. The crib should have a firm mattress and no blankets, pillows, or stuffed animals. Don't overdress your baby for bed or keep her room too warm either because that might make arousal more difficult.
  • Eliminate your baby's exposure to tobacco smoke. One of the toxic tobacco by-products might be responsible for that underdeveloped brain area and your baby's inability to wake himself up if he has trouble breathing, experts say. They base this theory on the fact that moms who smoke during pregnancy have twice the risk of a baby dying of SIDS.

Originally published in You & Your Baby: Pregnancy.

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