Investigators concluded that sleeping with a fan lowers SIDS risk by more than 70%.
Sleeping in a room with an open window was also found to lower risk, although the association was not significant.
The intriguing findings must be confirmed, and researchers say fan use is no substitute for interventions known to lower SIDS risk, such as placing babies to sleep on their backs, avoiding soft bedding in cribs, and putting babies to sleep with pacifiers.
SIDS deaths have dropped by more than half in the U.S. since 1992, when parents were first told to put babies to sleep on their backs.
"This is one more thing that parents can do for peace of mind," De-Kun Li, MD, PhD, tells WebMD.
Sleeping and SIDS
It is now clear that sleep environment plays a big role in SIDS, Li says, but the reasons for this are not completely understood.
SIDS deaths are most likely to occur when babies are between the ages of 2 months and 4 months, and deaths tend to peak in winter months. It is the leading cause of death in babies 1 month to 1 year old.
One theory is that SIDS is caused by the buildup of carbon dioxide when infants with inadequate sleep arousal responses re-breathe exhaled air trapped by bedding or proximity to other sleeping family members.
With this idea in mind, Li and colleagues from the research division of the California-based managed health care group Kaiser Permanente hypothesized that increasing airflow near a sleeping baby would help protect against sudden infant death syndrome.
To test the theory, they interviewed the mothers of 185 babies who died of SIDS in Northern California and Los Angeles County from 1997 to 2000. The average length of time between the SIDS death and the interview was 3.8 months.
The mothers of 312 children matched for age, area of residence, and socioeconomic and ethnic background to the SIDS victims were also interviewed.
Sleeping in a room with an open window was found to reduce the risk of SIDS by 36%, while sleeping with a fan in the room was associated with a 72% reduction in risk.
The risk reduction with fan use was even greater in babies who were put to bed on their stomachs or had other sleep-related SIDS risk factors.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study appears in the October issue of Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.
Back Sleeping Still Important
Pediatrician and SIDS researcher Fern Hauck, MD, tells WebMD that the observation that better ventilation may lower the risk of sudden infant death is an important one.
Hauck directs the Internal Family Medicine Clinic of the University of Virginia Health System.
"We have no way of knowing which children will die of SIDS, so anything we can tell parents that might lower risk is important," she says.
She called the findings "exciting," but also expressed concern that some parents might get the message that all they need to do to keep their baby safe is put a fan in the baby's bedroom.
Hauck led the American Academy of Pediatrics task force that wrote the group's most recent recommendations for lowering SIDS risk.
In addition to putting babies to sleep on their backs, the task force recommended that babies be offered a pacifier at night or at nap time if they will take one.
Other recommendations include:
- Although babies can be brought into their parents' bed for nursing or comforting, they should not share the bed when parents are sleeping.
- Infants should be put to sleep on a firm mattress covered by nothing more than a sheet.
- Keep soft objects and loose bedding out of the crib: stuffed toys, pillows, and quilts should be removed from the bed when the baby is sleeping.
- Avoid overheating. Babies should be lightly clothed during sleep, and the room they sleep in should not be too hot.
- Mothers-to-be should not smoke during pregnancy, and babies should not be exposed to secondhand smoke.
"Smoking during pregnancy is one of the strongest risk factors for SIDS," Hauck says.