RESEARCHERS at an Australian medical center said in May 2022 that they may have uncovered the underlying cause of sudden infant death syndrome.
The condition, more commonly known as SIDS, is the unexplained death of an infant that occurs when they’re asleep.
What is sudden infant death syndrome?
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) occurs while a baby is asleep and typically happens within the first six months of a baby’s life.
According to the CDC, the death in babies less than one-year-old is identified as SIDS and is often caused by physical factors such as accidental suffocation in their sleeping environment.
Although the rate of SIDS death has decreased since the 1990s as more information has become available, about 3,400 infants in the US died unexpectedly in 2019, the CDC says.
Of those numbers, 37 percent of the deaths were attributed to SIDS, 34.7 percent were from unknown causes, and 28 percent were caused by accidental strangulation in bed.
Parents should identify the steps they can take to reduce the risk of their child dying from SIDS including removing blankets, stuffed animals, and pillows from their infant’s bed.
What causes SIDS?
SIDS can occur in the first year of an infant’s life and parents should be cautious when they put their child to sleep by making sure the baby is lying on their back and there isn’t anything in the crib with them.
Allowing a baby to sleep on their stomach can block their airway or cause airbreathing, meaning they are re-breathing their own exhaled air.
When this happens, the oxygen level in their body drops, and the level of carbon dioxide rises. The brain is wired to trigger the baby to wake up and cry, allowing them to get more oxygen, but if the brain doesn’t pick up the signal, the baby’s oxygen levels will fall and result in death.
Outside factors can make a baby more susceptible to SIDS such as if the mother smoked or drank alcohol during pregnancy, used drugs, or had inadequate prenatal care, according to Mayo Clinic.
Babies who die from SIDS are thought to have trouble regulating their heart rate, breathing, and temperature.
Pediatricians advise parents to reduce the risk of SIDS by:
- Placing babies on their backs for all sleep times — naps and at night
- Avoiding blankets in cribs
- Breastfeeding if possible
- Keeping babies in the parents’ or guardians’ sleeping area for at least six months, but not in the adults’ beds
What do researchers say is the possible explanation for SIDS?
Researchers at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Australia believe they may have identified why infants are unable to wake themselves up if they can’t breathe, resulting in sudden infant death syndrome.
The study was carried out across 722 Dried Blood Spots that were taken at birth as part of a Newborn Screening Program. Researchers measured the BChE in SIDS and infants that were dying from other causes and compared the results to ten infants of the same age and gender who survived.
The enzyme, BChE (butyrylcholinesterase) play’s a role in the brain’s arousal pathway that would prompt the infant to wake up when their oxygen levels decreased.
Their findings showed there were significantly lower levels of this enzyme in infants who died of SIDS.
“Babies have a very powerful mechanism to let us know when they are not happy,” Lead researcher and Honorary Research Fellow Dr Carmel Harrington told ABC News Australia.
“Usually, if a baby is confronted with a life-threatening situation, such as difficulty breathing during sleep because they’re on their tummies, they will arouse and cry out.
“What this research shows is that some babies don’t have this same robust arousal response.”
Harrington added, “Now that we know that BChE is involved, we can begin to change the outcome for these babies and make SIDS a thing of the past.”
The research is still in its preliminary stages, but medical experts are suggesting that if infants could be screened for the levels of their BChE enzymes, SIDS could be prevented in the future.
Dr Kira Sieplinga told WDTN News, “Maybe it’s an exciting first step so that down the road in those newborn screens that we get that detect so many diseases, potentially down the road it might indicate another one that we could find and either intervene in or know which babies we need to keep a closer eye on.”