Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – or ‘cot death’ – is the death of an apparently healthy infant under the age of one that cannot be explained and occurs without warning.

While SIDS is rare, it is one of the most common causes of death in babies between one and 12 months, and occurs most often between the ages of two and four months.

It is not clear what causes SIDS, but it appears that it is more likely to occur in premature and low-birth-weight babies; in babies whose mothers smoke, didn’t receive medical care during their pregnancy and who were under the age of 20 when they gave birth.

Gastrointestinal or respiratory infections in the infant may also be risk factors that play a role.

Research is underway to establish the link between SIDS and how well the brain controls breathing, heart rate and temperature in the first few months of life. There is also a hypothesis, called the triple-risk hypothesis, that suggest three risk factors which when they overlap may predispose a baby to SIDS. These factors are:

  • A crucial developmental period
  • An underlying vulnerability
  • And an environmental stress or trigger.

What are its symptoms?

SIDS has no warning signs or symptoms. Babies who die of SIDS appear to be quite well when placed in their cots for a nap or bedtime. 

According to Rarediseases.org, “Existing literature does not indicate any evidence for suffering by the infant in the moments preceding the sudden death.”

How is it diagnosed?

To try to find out why the baby died, an autopsy is performed; medical experts look at the parents’ and baby’s medical histories, and the area where the baby died is examined.

Can it be prevented?

There is no conclusive way to prevent SIDS as there are no conclusive causes, and no physical examination that can predict that a baby may die from it.

However, there are a number of ways that may help to protect your baby from SIDS, including the following:

  • Place your baby on her back when putting her to bed; not on her stomach or her side.
  • For the first six months, use a crib, cradle or bassinet for your baby, and let her sleep in the same room where you sleep.
  • Abstain from smoking, alcohol and drugs while you are pregnant.
  • Avoid having your baby sleep in the same bed with you, especially if you smoke, have had alcohol, taken drugs or medicine that make you sleep very deeply.
  • Never sleep with a baby on a couch or armchair.
  • Keep loose items, such as stuffed toys, little pillows, etc, out of the crib.
  • Use a firm mattress with a fitted sheet; avoid bumper pads or similar products that attach to the side of the crib.
  • Ensure the room temperature is constant so that your baby doesn’t get too cold or hot. If she’s too warm, she’ll start sweating or tossing and turning.
  • If you are breastfeeding, wait until your baby is about one-month-old and consider giving her a pacifier (dummy) at bed- or naptime. There is evidence to suggest that using a pacifier may help to reduce the risk of SIDS. (However, do not force a pacifier if she refuses it.)

Breathing monitors, special mattresses and other products marketed to reduce the chances of SIDS have not been proven conclusively to lower the risk. The use of these items is not advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in December 2015