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Preventing SIDS: New Advice for Parents

WebMD Health News

April 27, 2001 - The Back-to-Sleep program has educated new parents on the importance of sleep position in preventing sudden infant death syndrome, also known as SIDS. Over the last decade, putting babies to sleep on their backs has dramatically -- but not completely -- reduced deaths from SIDS.


But many parents are not aware of the many other risk factors for SIDS. Recent reports emphasize that overheating, second-hand smoke, formula feeding, soft bedding, and bed sharing with adults may also contribute to SIDS. And like sleep position, many of these factors are preventable.


A recent CDC study finds that both breastfeeding and keeping second-hand smoke away from infants are equally important in preventing SIDS. The study of 117 SIDS cases in Louisiana over a two-year period found 55% of the deaths could have been prevented if mothers had breastfed their babies.


It's not that formula is bad, says Bradley Thach, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who has conducted his own studies of SIDS. "It's thought that breast milk -- because it has maternal antibodies -- decreases the risk of the infant getting an infection or respiratory problem, which is a risk factor for SIDS," he tells WebMD.


The study also found that 27% of infant deaths could have been prevented if mothers had not smoked after delivery.


"Smoking [during infancy] may in some way impair the infant's ability to tolerate low oxygen levels if his head and face get covered," says Thach. Also, if the mother smokes while she is pregnant, she may be causing low birth weight and premature birth, which are also risk factors for SIDS, he says.


Thermal stress or overheating -- caused by too much clothing, heavy bedding, or a too-warm room -- can also increase the risk of SIDS, especially if a baby already has a fever, says Warren Guntheroth, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. His study appears in the April issue of Pediatrics.


"The risk of overheating is very well established in Europe, but we had seen nothing in this country about it," he tells WebMD. "After a careful survey of the world's literature, we concluded that many cases of SIDS could be explained by thermal stress."


Because a baby loses much heat through his tummy -- and even more through his face and head -- covering those areas prevents him from releasing excess heat, Guntheroth says. "The prevention then is to keep kids on their backs, don't cover their heads, don't cover them with too much of anything. And don't overheat the room."


In fact, soft bedding like pillows, mattresses, blankets, and comforters also increase risk of SIDS, says Thach. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued advisories about soft bedding, he tells WebMD.

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