SIDS prevention and safe sleep for infants: What you need to know

A baby sleeping on their back

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the sudden and unexplained death of a seemingly healthy baby less than 1 year old. Often, these deaths occur during sleep or in the baby’s sleeping area and the cause is not obvious even after an investigation.

Over 2,500 infants die of this mysterious syndrome each year, and while by its very definition the cause of SIDS can’t be determined, there are some actions you can take to protect your baby against SIDS.

As newborn care specialists at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital, these are some of the most common questions we hear from parents and caregivers.

What causes SIDS?

It’s not clear yet what causes SIDS, but there is a mounting body of evidence indicating that brain abnormalities may play a role. This defect affects the part of the baby’s brain that involves breathing and arousal from sleep. Babies with this defect may be at increased risk of dying from SIDS. We also know that sleeping environment may also determine the baby’s chances of dying from SIDS.

When is SIDS most likely to occur?

The majority of SIDS deaths occur before 6 months of age, but can happen any time during a baby’s first year of life. It is sometimes called “crib death” because it often occurs when infants are sleeping or are in their sleeping environment, but the crib itself is NOT the cause of death.

What are the biggest risk factors for SIDS?

There are a number of known risk factors for SIDS. Some of these risk factors may be genetic or congenital, meaning that some infants may have a higher risk of SIDS than others due to their biology.

Environmental factors associated with increased risk of SIDS include:

  • Having the baby sleep on their side or stomach
  • Sleeping on soft surfaces such as pillows, or with objects in the sleeping environment such as pillows, blankets, or stuffed animals
  • Getting overheated while sleeping
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke during or after pregnancy
  • Sleeping in a bed with other people or pets.

What are some ways parents can reduce the risk of SIDS in their infants?

Creating a safe sleep environment is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce risk for SIDS. Here are the easiest ways to create a safe sleep environment:

  • Babies should always sleep on their backs, even during naps.
  • Infants should sleep in an approved crib, bassinet, or Pack ‘n Play.
  • The sleeping surface should be firm and flat, covered by only a fitted sheet with no other bedding, pillows, or toys in the area.
  • Share a room, not a bed — babies should never sleep in the same bed as their parent, but the baby’s crib, bassinet, or portable crib may be in the same room as the parent’s bed.
  • Breastfeeding your baby also reduces risk for SIDS.

Research has shown a link between alcohol and nicotine use during pregnancy and an increased risk for SIDS. Once the baby is born, use of any substance that may impair a parent’s judgment and ability to adhere to safe sleep practices is also a risk factor for SIDS. Exposure to second-hand smoke from tobacco have been associated with an increased risk of SIDS.

Keep your baby up to date on their health checkups and vaccines, and always talk to your physician about any concerns you have. They can help you identify risk factors in your home environment and work with you to reduce risk to your infant.

What are UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s Hospital doing to support infant safety and prevent SIDS?

Providers at the University of Chicago Medicine and Comer Children’s Hospital are dedicated to supporting infants and their parents and caregivers in creating safe sleep environments and reducing the risk of SIDS. In 2019, UChicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital received the Gold Certification for Safe Sleep Hospital designation from the Cribs for Kids organization, the first hospital in Chicago to do so. As part of this certification, Comer Children’s Hospital provides training to staff and education for parents on the risk factors for SIDS and information on how to prevent it, in addition to providing community outreach on safe sleeping. We also provide resources for parents who need assistance creating a safe sleep environment for their infants, including providing portable cribs to our patients and members of the community.

Poj Lysouvakon, MD

Poj Lysouvakon, MD

Poj Lysouvakon, MD, is the director of Safe Kids South Chicagoland and pediatric director of the Mother-Baby Unit at the Family Birth Center.

Learn more about Dr. Lysouvakon

Safe Kids South Chicagoland

Learn more about our efforts to prevent childhood injury within our communities.

Safe Kids South Chicagoland