Health Break | Published February 28, 2005 | Written by Diane Elliott, RN

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is every parent’s worst nightmare: your baby is fine one minute, and not breathing the next. While the exact cause of this tragedy is still unknown, we are closer to understanding it. We now know that there is a definite link to a baby’s sleep position and to a baby’s exposure to cigarette smoke.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also known as SIDS, crib death, and cot death, is the unexplained, sudden death during sleep of an apparently healthy, normal infant with no obvious evidence of disease or illness. SIDS is one of the top ten causes of death for infants. Although the syndrome is not hereditary or contagious, there is a tendency for SIDS to occur more than once in families. The age when infants begin most of their vaccinations (2 to 4 months old) is also the peak age for SIDS. The similar timing of these two events has led some people to believe that they might be related. However, recent studies have shown that vaccinations are not a risk factor for SIDS or sudden unexpected death in infants. In fact, infants who are immunized are at decreased risk for SIDS.

There has been a drastic drop in the number of SIDS cases since the start of the “Back to Sleep” campaign. Between 1992 and 1998, the SIDS rate dropped by about 40 percent.

As with most health problems, the key is to be aware of risk factors and control the ones that can be managed. Controllable risk factors:

  • Sleep Position: Babies who sleep on their sides or backs ("back is best"), are much less likely to become victims of SIDS.

  • Cigarette Smoke: Babies whose mothers smoked during pregnancy have a greater risk of dying of SIDS. A baby who lives in a home where ANYONE smokes is more likely to die of SIDS.

  • Sleeping Situation: Debate continues as to the safety of infants sleeping in their parent’s bed. It is known that infants are more at risk if they sleep on soft bedding such as bean bag cushions, foam pads, and synthetic-filled adult pillows. Wherever infants sleep, care must be taken to make sure that they will be able to remain on their backs with nothing near their faces.

  • Mothers’ Health: Mothers under age 20, mothers who are anemic or drug-dependent, and mothers who had late or no prenatal care are all more likely to have a baby die of SIDS.

Uncontrollable factors:

  • Birthweight: Low birthweight babies are more at risk for SIDS.

  • Gender: Male infants are more at risk than females.

  • Weather: SIDS occurs more often during the winter months.

  • Age: SIDS tends to strike at age two to four months.

  • Race: African American and Native American infants are at a higher risk for SIDS than Caucasian babies.

How does a parent get peace of mind? Learn infant CPR in case you find your baby unresponsive. Post emergency phone numbers near the phone. If your baby has several risk factors, the doctor may order a home apnea monitor. This device sounds a loud alarm if the baby stops breathing or has a heart rate that is too low.

Valuable resources for parents are available. The Red Cross, American Heart Association, and Mount Nittany Medical Center (814.231.7888) offer CPR courses. The SIDS Alliance (800.221.SIDS) is a 24-hour information and referral line. The National SIDS/ID Resource Center can be reached at 866.866.7437 or The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Clearinghouse is at 800.370.2943 or For information about vaccinations, see The National Immunization Program website at

Diane Elliott, RN, is a registered nurse with a certification in Pediatrics and the Maternal/Child educator at Mount Nittany Medical Center.