Just as the name states, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS is the unexpected and unexplained death of an infant. SIDS is what medical professionals call a diagnosis of exclusion. It is attributed to the infant’s death when no cause could be revealed even after a forensic autopsy, an investigation of the death scene, or a study of the child’s and family’s medical history. Its inexplicableness is what primarily characterizes it as a disease. The fact that it typically happens to children less than a year old, occurs during sleep, and there are often no apparent signs of suffering gives this diseasea particularly tragic and frightening nature.
Different Terms Used
The more traditional and common names for this disease are cot death or crib death, derived from its more likely occurring when the baby has been put to sleep. There are variations on its modern label ‘SIDS’ and the differences are based on which particular field is attempting to investigate the death and at what stage the investigation is progressing. Certain countries like Australia and New Zealand for example prefer to use SUDI or Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy because coroners use the word ‘undetermined’ for cases that have unknown cause of death. Meanwhile the United State’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) use the more general term SUID or Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths because the cause is not immediately apparent before any investigation or study is executed.
History of SIDS
This phenomenon is not something new but its distinction as a separate disease has only been established recently. As far back as 2nd Century A.D., there are texts in surviving Greek medical writings that instruct mothers and wet-nurses not to fall asleep beside the infant for fear that they may accidentally roll on and suffocate the baby. This act was known as ‘overlaying’. At that time, it was the only acceptable cause which explained why a healthy infant would unexpectedly and peacefully die in sleep.
Sometime in the 19th Century, when medical science had gone through much advancement and clinical methodologies had become relatively more sophisticated, physicians began to look into respiratory ailments as a possible cause of sudden infant deaths. Then in the 1930’s, bacterial infection was also looked into. As study of the phenomenon progressed, more hypotheses of possible causes and contributing factors were brought to light and tested.
The first international conference on sudden infant death was held in Seattle, Washington in 1963. This marked a significant leap forward in terms of study and recognition of the disease in the medical field as well as awareness by the public. It was at the second conference in 1969 that the disease was formally defined and given the official name of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The proponent was Dr. Marie Valdes-Dapnea and it was her lecture titled ‘Progress in Sudden Infant Death Research’ that finally brought about this official recognition of the disease. Here, she presented nine theories that outlined the possible causes of SIDS studied up until that point. Although some of those theories have been disputed or disproved later on, her lecture was still considered a milestone in the history and research of the disease.
Exhaustive studies have been done and are being continued in the area of pediatrics but at the most only statistical correlations between specific factors and the disease are being discovered. Here are some of them:
• Time of day. SIDS usually occurs during sleep. According to a certain study, there’s a 50% chance of it happening between 12 – 8AM, 36% in the daytime 8 AM – 4 PM, and the least chance of occurrence at 14% between 4 PM – 12 AM.
• Climate. SIDS has been found out to be more prevalent in winter.
• Age. The disease happens to children aged 3 weeks to 1 year. The highest rate is said to be at 2-3 months old. In terms of the mother’s age, studies show that children of mothers aged 20 and below are more susceptible
• Gender. SIDS occurs at higher rate with male infants.
• Birth weight. Infants with low birth weights are revealed to be more vulnerable to the disease.
• Feeding. Infants that have been totally breast-fed are less likely to succumb to SIDS.
• Smoking. There’s a close correlation between mothers who smoke during and after pregnancy. The chances of their infants falling victim to SIDS increases with their amount of smoking.
• Drugs. Infants of mothers who have been treated with methadone or sleep affecting pharmaceuticals have a noticeable tendency to succumb to SIDS.
• Botulism. The botulinum bacteria have been implicated as the cause of 5% of sudden infant deaths.
To date SIDS remains a diagnosis of exclusion. No direct physiological or environmental causes have yet been uncovered conclusively.