New SIDS Research Gives Exciting Clues But Safe Sleep is Still Most Important

While new research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome may provide clues about an infant's vulnerability to the disorder, doctors say parents can currently take action to reduce risks.

Parents of newborns know that despite perfect care, the devastating effects of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is still a possibility for their babies, and while much is still unknown about this condition, new research from The Lancet’s eBioMedicine gives some insight into what may cause it.

This research points to a biomarker called Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) —  an enzyme found within the autonomic nervous system that plays a role in helping babies wake up — as a common link among babies with SIDS.

While “finding the cause of SIDS” would certainly be a huge accomplishment, medical professionals warn that this is not what eBioMedicine’s study did. The study used a small sample size and has yet to be repeated by other researchers, so the early stages of the findings, while exciting, don’t mean much for families quite yet.

“This study got so much press and media because we so badly want to have an answer for this,” says Sarah Rauner, a pediatric nurse practitioner and the head of the pediatric after-hours clinic at Beaumont in Troy.

Putting a baby to sleep on her back, removing all extra items from the crib and keeping temperatures within a safe range is still the best advice to keep infants safe from SIDS, adds Michael Bauer, MD, pediatrician and medical director at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital in Illinois.

What is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?

“SIDS is a sudden or unexpected death in a child less than one year of age with no identifiable cause,” says Bauer. “Most of them occur while the infant is asleep or in the sleep environment.”

SIDS is a multifactorial issue, adds Rauner. It’s mostly agreed on in the medical community that SIDS occurs in babies with a pre-existing vulnerability coupled with an outside stressor during the first year of life.

Around 2,300 babies in the United States die of SIDS each year. It’s the leading cause of death for infants in their first year of life.

What parents can do to prevent SIDS?

Some of the risk factors for SIDS in babies include co-sleeping in the same bed with caregivers, putting a baby down to sleep on her side or stomach, low birth weight, premature birth, too soft of a sleeping surface, hot temperatures in the sleeping environment or having a sibling who died of SIDS.

“Right now, parents should control what they can control,” Bauer says. “There are certain modifiable risk factors and the number one thing we know is that the prone position, or sleeping on stomach, is a big risk factor.”

“Babies should always go to sleep on their backs,” he adds.

Other than putting babies down to sleep correctly, Bauer says a cooler room is better than a warm one and that no bumpers, toys or blankets should be in the crib.

There’s a reduced risk of SIDS in families that co-sleep in the same room (but not that same bed) and for moms who breastfeed. Allowing a baby to sleep with a pacifier — without any strings of attachments — also helps reduce the risk of SIDS.

“We know that moms who smoke, or use other drugs or alcohol, during pregnancy and those who don’t get prenatal care can raise the risk as well,” he says.

While it’s far too soon to say how a potential biomarker for SIDS would change infant care, parents should know that medical professionals are always looking to update practices based on the most current findings.

In the meantime, Rauner says the social media hype from the study, while overblown, is still a step in the right direction.

“We would all love to look at this study and say ‘This is the reason for SIDS,’ but for now it’s a good starting point,” she says. “Further studies will get into determining more about the biomarker.”

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