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The History of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Crib death has been with us since the Middle Ages, but has been disguised under a number of names, and surrounded by mystery and superstition. Even in the Bible, sudden infant deaths were noted and were referred to as "overlaying". In these days it was apparently common practice to put small babies to sleep in the same bed with their parents, siblings or a nurse and it was a widely held belief these infants suffocated when an adult or older child rolled over on them during sleep.

Prior to the 19th century and well into our own, sudden infant deaths were not viewed with any particular alarm. Smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, cholera, whooping cough, and other diseases took their toll on all ages; infants were merely considered particularly vulnerable.

It was not until 1969 that the term Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was applied to what scientists finally recognized as a distinct disease. This was a result of the National Institute of Health Second International Conference that was held in the State of Washington, USA, in 1969 due to the opening talk "Progress in Sudden Infant Death Research", given by Dr. Marie Valdes-Dapnea, who was accepted as the most impeccable source of scientific information on crib death at that time.

She listed nine theories that had been proposed to explain crib death, which were; stress, adrenal hormone imbalance, mineral deficiency of the parathyroid gland, bacterial infection, spinal cord bleeding due to "whip lash" injury, infanticide (a New York psychiatrist actually wrote a paper suggesting that crib death was due to depressed mothers killing their babies) and obstruction of the nasal passage due to mucus. All of these theories, with the exception of the last one have been convincingly disproved.

Factors That Have Been Associated With SIDS

Today SIDS has a new definition which specifies that if a disease is found in a deceased baby then the infant's death is not classified as a crib death syndrome case (in other words, whose definition is the absence of any syndrome or disease!). Modern research has investigated the causes of SIDS almost to an extent of exhaustion. Is it inherited? Or is it environmentally linked? Nothing has been determined as a direct cause of SIDS, but many environmental factors associated with it have been found. The following factors have been found:

  1. Time of day - Crib deaths have always been associated with sleep. The infant is not observed and apparently dies silently and without struggle. A study was able to show that 50% died from midnight to 8am, 36% between 8am and 4pm, and 14% between 4pm and midnight.

  2. Time of year - Winter is by far the most dangerous period.
    Weather links:
    -sharp temperature drop.

  3. Time of life - Most SIDS victims are between three weeks to one year in age. There is a marked peak at two to three months. It is extremely rare after five months of age. The most inexplicable feature of this 'time capsule' is the apparent immunity infants have during their first three weeks of life.
  4. Place of death - Sweden has the lowest rate of SIDS which is reported as being as low as 0.6 SIDS deaths for 1000 live births. In comparison Ontario, Canada had a reported 3 SIDS deaths per 1000 live births.
    Geographical link:
    -increasing latitude.
    -increasing population congestion.
    -regional outbreaks of respiratory disease.

  5. Sex link -- There is a marked excess in death rates for males.

  6. Bladder state link -- SIDS victims are almost always found in wet diapers.

  7. Age of mother -- Infants of mother under 20 years of age are most vulnerable.

  8. Smoking link -- SIDS victims are closely related to how much the mother smokes during and after pregnancy. The more she smokes, the more her chances increase for her baby dieing from crib death.

  9. Sociological link -- The SIDS rate is higher for the poor than for the well off, regardless of the race. The rate is higher among non-whites than whites, regardless of the income.

  10. Birth weight link -- Low birth-weight infants have higher crib death rates than heavy birth-weight infants.

  11. Position in the family link -- First born babies are not as likely to suffer from crib death as later born brothers or sisters.

  12. Infant feeding link -- Totally breast-fed infants have less likelihood of crib death than infants who are not breast-fed.

  13. Bedding link -- Soft pillows are found to have a much higher association with SIDS than hard, flat ones. Baby bedding that includes large baby quilts have also been known to suffocate babies. Large baby quilts and large baby blankets should be kept out of a crib until baby is over one year of age.
  14. Excessive clothing link - Evidence also shows that excessive heat may be involved in SIDS; many SIDS cases have been "judged to have been excessively clothed or covered at the time of death". In anticipation of a cold night, parents may overdress infants and cover them with several blankets or excessive baby clothes. This is not necessary in most cases and it has been decided that it caused hyperthermia (an exceptionally high fever).

  15. Drug link -- There is an information gap on the effect of drugs before, during and after birth for mother and infant. There is a direct relationship between methadone-treated pregnant women and their infant's crib death liability. Drugs that would influence sleep state or fluid control (e.g. alcohol and antihistamines) seem to have a marked effect on crib death rates.

  16. Family link -- SIDS rates are much higher for any infant if there has already been a crib death in the infant's family.

  17. Twin Link -- If one twin dies from crib death, regardless of whether it is an identical or fraternal twin, there is a higher than normal chance that the other will also die from it.

  18. Type of birth link -- There are no figures on drug-assisted births, but there should be. The ordinary, normal birth complications do not increase the rate of crib death.

  19. Economy link -- Severe downturns in the economy are reflected in higher crib death rates in the years following the downturns.

  20. Temperature link -- There are environmental temperature, body temperature, and excessive baby clothing and baby crib bedding links.

  21. Infant Botulism - is now believed to cause at least 5% of crib deaths and maybe as much as 30-40%, this is an acute food poisoning caused by ingestion of botulin. It is interesting to note that parents used to dip soothers in honey, and honey has now been proved to sometimes contain the bacterium that causes botulism.

Today SIDS is recognized as the leading cause of infant death in North America during the first year of life. More than 40,000 babies a year fail to reach their first birthday in the United States. Of every 1,000 live births, almost 11 children die in their first year, giving the United States the worst infant mortality rate in the industrialized world. Canada, by contrast, has about eight deaths per 1,000 live births and ranks ninth in the world for infant survival.

A Few Suggestions to Help Prevent SIDS

  • Do not give your baby honey as it has been found to be a possible source of enough toxin of the botulism bacteria to harm a young infant.

  • Raw agricultural products also can be a source of botulin bacteria and should be peeled or well cooked before they are given to an infant.

  • Also, unclean objects like pacifiers should be kept out of an infant's mouth until they have been washed.

  • It is also important not to clothe your baby in excessive amounts of baby clothes and not to put them to bed with excessive amounts of baby bedding.

  • It is also recommended to keep baby quilts out of a baby crib until a baby is one year of age, as they can cause suffocation in younger babies.

  • Mattresses must fit the cradles and baby cribs properly. Make sure to check that your baby's crib mattress fits snugly into your baby crib, if there are gaps around the edge of the mattress it has also been proven that the baby's head can slip down and thus cause suffocation while the baby is sleeping.

  • If your child is a suspected SIDS victim it is very easy to rent a monitor from your local hospital to monitor their breathing, and studies have shown that the alarms that these monitors set off bring immediate help that insures that infant be brought back to a breathing state.

It seems that just a few preventative methods can reduce the chances of an infant from becoming a statistic in the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome numbers. Although this cannot be guaranteed, why not try to give your baby its best chance at life!

About the Author

Julia Mahler is a successful and talented freelance writer providing advice for parents and consumers on purchasing designer baby clothes, blankets & bedding for babies and health and wellness. Her numerous articles provide a wonderfully researched resource and relevant information for all of your baby's needs.

This article on the "History of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome" reprinted with permission.

© 2004 - Net Guides Publishing, Inc.

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