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Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

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A condition also known as SIDS, or crib death.

SIDS strikes suddenly and silently, usually at night. Typically, a peacefully sleeping baby simply never wakes up. In most cases, no cause is ever found, and the death is best described as a SIDS death. The condition rarely occurs before 2 weeks or after 6 months of age. Most deaths occur in children who are between 2 months and 4 months of age.


The cause of SIDS remains elusive. Over the years, researchers have investigated a number of possible causes, including suffocation, vomiting or choking, birth defects, metabolic abnormalities, infection, and altered development in the parts of the brain that control breathing. In general, much of this research has focused on how breathing problems might lead to SIDS.

Now, problems with the heart also are receiving close attention. Extremely low heart rhythms that occur suddenly and don't improve with resuscitation have been seen in some SIDS babies. It's still unclear why this occurs.

Researchers are also investigating a possible link between SIDS and long QT syndrome, a subtle electrical disturbance in the heart that causes sudden, extremely rapid heart rates. Researchers suspect that some SIDS babies have a gene for this syndrome. If you have a history of SIDS in your family, your doctor will want to check for the presence of QT syndrome in your infant. This can usually be done with an electrocardiogram (ECG) and confirmed, if necessary, with genetic studies.

Factors that probably don't cause crib death include:

  • A toxin or poison in the baby's environment. The exception to this is cigarette smoke. Babies exposed to secondhand smoke have a harder time waking up or being awakened from sleep, which researchers believe increases the risk of SIDS.

  •  Immunizations or a lack of immunizations. Some people believe that the multiple vaccinations American infants receive may play a role in SIDS. But a report issued by the Institute of Medicine in March 2003 found no link between any childhood vaccine and SIDS. At the same time, there's no evidence that children who aren't vaccinated are at increased risk.

  • Exposure to electrical or magnetic fields or to household pets. In addition, SIDS doesn't seem to be caused by allergies or allergic reactions.

In time, scientists may learn exactly what factor or combination of factors does cause SIDS. For now, you can take preventive steps that can reduce the risk to your infant. And if a baby dies suddenly or unexpectedly, it can be extremely important to have a detailed autopsy performed to look for signs of infection or metabolic problems.

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