For a syndrome that kills so many infants every year, very little is known about what causes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). There, of course, can be no cure for this terrible condition until doctors understand why it happens.
The stress of being a new parent is high enough, just trying to keep our babies healthy while they are awake. Finding the cause of the silent killer that is SIDS would do a lot to put parents’ minds at ease.
What the Research Says
However, a new study, released this year, suggests that there may be a link between victims of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It may come down to a shared neurological background among victims of this disease.
In this study, the researchers figured out that this common characteristic may have to do with the brain’s reaction to breathing during sleep.
Specifically, the brain doesn’t know how to keep the body breathing during sleep, and the person dies during the night. Having the condition doesn’t guarantee you will die suddenly as an infant, but there seems to be a direct link between SIDS and this brain malfunction.
What is The Leading Cause of SIDS?
A leading cause of SIDS appears to be suffocation, whether by objects left in the crib with a sleeping child, or bedding getting wrapped around the baby.
The airways become blocked, but the problem then is that the baby doesn’t just wake up and cry, or remove the object from around his neck.
What Happens in the Body
Carbon dioxide – CO2- is poisonous to our body. That is why we exhale or breathe it out. Our bodies need to get rid of it. This study showed that the brains of kids with SIDS couldn’t recognize that the carbon dioxide levels in their bodies were too high.
Most people’s minds would “yell” at them to wake up if CO2 levels were getting too high, but not these victims of SIDS. They just kept sleeping until they passed away.
We have receptors in our brains, called serotonin receptors, that monitor the CO2 levels, and tell the brain to respond appropriately. Those receptors don’t seem to work in kids with SIDS.
Different Types of Sudden Death Syndromes
Interestingly enough, there are a few other types of sudden death syndromes that affect adults as well as children. One such sudden death disease is known as SUDEP (Sudden, Unexpected Death in Epilepsy).
People with SUDEP have epilepsy, but their sudden deaths are often unrelated to seizures. Scientists are starting to think that these sudden death syndromes have a common connection.
They all involve the serotonin receptors in the brain that signal too much carbon dioxide is in our blood.
More Research is Needed
The researchers behind this study admitted that this is just the first step of many. This new knowledge about a SIDS gene will lead to more research, which is a good thing. However, there is a lot more work to do, and many more babies will sadly pass away before we learn more.
Challenges Faced When Researching SIDS
A big obstacle in the way of learning, and stopping, SIDS, is that the underlying causes are still not fully connected to the disease. For example, it is safe to assume that smoking cigarettes around babies, or especially when a mother-to-be is pregnant, is known to be a bad idea.
However, another study suggested that smoking just one cigarette a day while pregnant can double the risk of the baby developing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
The same can be said about alcohol, and now with the opioid crisis and prescription drugs as well.
All of these findings make parents wonder even more about SIDS. Does my child have this gene? If he has this gene, is he guaranteed to get SIDS? What can I do to keep my child safe?
Risk Factors for SIDS
Pediatricians and scientists have figured out common triggers, or risk factors, that parents can try to avoid when they can.
Babies should always be laid on their backs, never in a prone or side sleeping position. Most suffocations occur when the baby’s face is pointing downwards.
Overheating is another risk factor, and if your child is sweating too much, you should remove extra clothing, so they are cool throughout the night.
Cribs and baby beds should be completely bare, with no pillows, blankets, or quilts for infants to get tangled in.
Parents should also never sleep in the same bed or on the couch with their babies. If you are about to doze off with your baby in your arms, make sure you get up and place your child, face-up, in their own bed.
Do Your Best to Practice Safe Sleeping Habits
Many things in life, and especially things like raising little children to be healthy, are challenging. The challenges are made so much harder when we do not fully understand why certain things happen. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is one of those.
It is a tragic, frustrating, and mind-boggling disease. Studies like these will help us all understand the science behind the disease. For now, all we can do is practice safe sleeping habits to place our little ones in the least dangerous situation.
Ultimately, suffocating or having too much carbon dioxide in the blood paired with a weak or no alert sent by the brain places little ones at a higher risk for developing SIDS. While that is important to know and hopefully will lead to a cure someday, we need to keep on parenting as best we can.