What Is My Baby’s Real Risk of SIDS?

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome 

It's every parent's worst nightmare–a culprit that snatches babies away with no warning signs or symptoms–and a phenomenon that the medical world is still trying to understand completely. 

Most of us know the basics when it comes to SIDS, like the fact that it claims approximately 4,000 lives of babies in the United States every year, and we know to follow the guidelines for prevention, such as the #1 rule of always putting babies to sleep on their backs. 

But even with knowing the facts and following the guidelines, I have never stopped worrying about my babies when they are asleep. Driving in the car, feeding the baby at night, even going for a walk in our stroller–I am constantly checking for that reassuring rise and fall of my baby's chest to ensure that she is OK. 

And although, as parents, we can never have any “real” peace of mind, I did want to know one thing: “Is there a way to determine a baby's real risk of SIDS?”

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Image via Flickr/ Xue Rui

“There isn't really a ‘risk calculator,' ” said Dr. Rachel Y. Moon, MD, Associate Chief, Division of General Pediatrics and Community Health at the Goldberg Center for Community Pediatric Health and SIDS Researcher with Children's National Health System. “There are a couple of people, one in the UK and one in New Zealand, who are working on risk calculators, but they're not ready for prime time yet.”

Until that moment when we can more accurately determine a baby's real risk of SIDS, it may be helpful to take a look at some of the numbers that reflect the risk factor as detailed in the American Academy of Pediatrics' technical report on SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths from 2011:

  • Race: Since reporting of SIDS deaths started in 1996, non-Hispanic black and American Indian/Alaska-native babies have had an almost doubled rate of SIDS. Researchers aren't completely clear on the difference, but cultural habits, such as family bed sharing, may play a role. 
  • Age: Ninety percent of SIDS cases happen before six months of age, with a peak incidence between one and four months of age. So the older your baby, the less the chance of SIDS. 
  • Birth weight: Babies born at a low birth weight or those born after intra-uterine growth restriction are more likely to die of SIDS. Scientists aren't sure if the weight itself is a factor in SIDS or if it's linked to the problems in-utero that caused the low birth weight in the first place. 
  • Smoking: Emerging research found that nicotine in a mother's bloodstream may affect the baby's developing brainstem. Consequently, many cases of SIDS have been linked to abnormalities in the brainstem, which controls breathing in the body. Smoke in the home after the baby is born is also a leading risk factor in SIDS, so smoking during and after pregnancy increases your baby's risk of SIDS greatly. 
  • Sleeping habits: While it's not confirmed, the report suggested that babies who wake more frequently during the night may actually have less chance of SIDS, as frequent waking may suggest a more responsive brain system. 
  • Prematurity: Infants born prematurely have an increased risk of SIDS. 
  • Genetics: While the report states that there isn't strong evidence for SIDS being hereditary, genetic abnormalities in the brain may be present, meaning that SIDS itself isn't hereditary, but a genetic difference in brain anatomy, for instance, could contribute to SIDS in a family. 
  • Sleeping position: Obviously, all babies should be placed on their backs to sleep to reduce the risk of SIDS. What was interesting about this report, however, is that the APP noted that when babies naturally begin to roll over, around 4-6 months, and providing they can roll from their front to their back as well, there is no need to roll them back to their backs if they move in their sleep constantly. 
  • Lack of variety: Babies are not meant to be on their backs constantly, and the numbers reflect that. Tummy time and having infants kept in an upright position, such as held to Mom's chest with a baby carrier, actually helps to reduce the risk of SIDS. 
  • Bed-sharing: The AAP report recognizes that there is still research being done on family bed sharing, as to many people, it's an important family dynamic. However, the correlation between SIDS and bed sharing is undeniably high, with an almost 95% confidence interval. Instead, they suggest room-sharing. 
  • Drug abuse: Like smoking, mothers who abused drugs during their pregnancies also had more instances of SIDS in their babies. 
  • Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of SIDS. Exclusive breastfeeding for one month reduced the risk of SIDS by half in one study. 

In the end, while knowing the risk factors for SIDS may help, the most important thing that any parent can do to reduce the risk of SIDS is to follow the recommendations for safe sleeping and lifestyle habits when caring for your baby.   

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What healthy habits do you use in your home to reduce the risk of SIDS?

What do you think?

What Is My Baby’s Real Risk of SIDS?

Chaunie Brusie is a writer, mom of four, and founder of The Stay Strong Mom, a community + gift box service for moms after loss. ... More

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9 comments

  1. Cara says:

    Would you share the studies for the co-sleeping risk? I have not been able to find studies that are conclusive, as ones I have seen don’t exclude or consider many factors that would seemingly influence the results.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I always put my 7 week old to sleep on his back but he rolls onto his side & sleeps like that. He’s fully capable of rolling back into his back, but if I do it, he just gets back up on his left side. Should I be worried about that?

  3. Dani says:

    This is my number one fear of going into motherhood. I had a friend who lost her baby at three months to SIDS.

    • Seraluna says:

      I know – ours is almost over the 6 month hump and I try not to think about it too much because the thought of it possibly happening makes me nauseous. I’m so sorry that your friend lost her baby. Being a parent is terrifying in many ways, and this is a big one. Don’t let it stop you, though. My munchkin is worth every grey hair I have now from worrying:)

  4. Felicia says:

    I would love to win a halo sleepsack!

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