As a parent, you will want to be in control of your child’s health and safety every second of their life. Unfortunately, this is not always possible — most notably, in the case of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.

Sudden infant death syndrome (also known as sudden unexplained infant death syndrome) is a tragedy that occurs when a baby younger than 1 year old dies unexplainably, usually during sleep. Because of this reason, SIDS is also known as “crib death.” Despite the years of research done on this topic, it remains a quandary for medical professionals — and, thus, a terrifying prospect for parents of young babies.

If you are preparing to bring a baby into your family, it’s important that you understand exactly what sudden infant death syndrome is. There are a great deal of myths and misconceptions about this tragic occurrence, so we’ve broken down what you need to know here.

What is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?

As mentioned, the definition of sudden infant death syndrome is exactly what it sounds like — any case in which a baby dies unexpectedly and unexplainably. Doctors still don’t know exactly what causes sudden infant death syndrome, and it’s a tragedy that is only noticeable once it is too late.

A child who dies from sudden infant death syndrome dies from a lack of oxygen to the brain. Often, they are found not breathing after they have been put to sleep by their parents. What’s complex about sudden infant death syndrome is that when a baby stops breathing, irreparable brain damage has already occurred. Even if a baby can be resuscitated, they will no longer have the ability to breathe on their own.

Doctors hypothesize that there is a defect in the brains of babies who die from SIDS, preventing their brain from recognizing a lack of oxygen until it is too late. In this way, SIDS is unpreventable — and may be viewed as a tragedy that will occur, no matter what precautions are taken, in a child with these brain issues.

Sudden infant death syndrome statistics include cases in which children die from diagnosed SIDS, accidental suffocation or strangling in bed, or an unknown cause. In 2015, there were about 3,700 SIDS deaths in the U.S. While SIDS rates have dropped steadily since 1990 (thanks to education about risk factors), the rate of SIDS was still 39.4 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015.

What Causes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?

As mentioned, doctors do not know what causes sudden infant death syndrome (also called SIDS). The lack of oxygen to the brain seems to be the “cause” of sudden infant death syndrome, although there are no established reasons why this lack of oxygen to the brain occurs. It could be suffocation from bedding, a defect in the brain, or something that doctors have yet to identify.

While there are no scientifically determined causes of sudden infant death syndrome, there are a few sudden infant death syndrome risk factors that seem to increase the possibility of this occurring:

  • Brain defects: Sometimes, a baby’s portion of the brain that controls breathing and arousal from sleep hasn’t matured enough to work properly.
  • Low birth weight: If a baby is born premature or part of a sibling group, it’s more likely that portion of the brain is underdeveloped.
  • Respiratory infection: If a baby recently had a cold, it could cause breathing problems that might lead to SIDS.
  • Sleeping on the stomach or side: Babies placed in this position often have harder times breathing than those placed on their backs.
  • Sleeping on a soft surface: A soft surface can cover a baby’s mouth and nose, causing suffocation.
  • Sharing a bed: If a baby sleeps in a bed with their parents, there is an increased risk of SIDS and suffocation from being covered, rolled over on, etc.
  • Overheating: Being too warm during sleep may increase the risk of SIDS.

There are also certain demographics that seem to increase the risk of SIDS:

  • Being male
  • Being between the ages of 2 and 4 months old
  • Being nonwhite
  • Having a family history of sudden infant death syndrome
  • Living with a smoker
  • Being premature

All that said, scientists still do not know what the cause of sudden infant death syndrome is — which makes prevention of this tragedy difficult.

Is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Prevention Possible?

This question is complicated to answer. While there are no ways to prevent sudden infant death syndrome from occurring, there are a few things parents can do to help their baby sleep safely:

  • Place your baby on their back to sleep. A baby should always sleep on their back during the first year of their life, every time they are put down to sleep. Once a baby is awake or can roll over both ways without help, being on their back is no longer necessary.
  • Keep a bare crib. Extra padding and bedding in a baby’s crib could potentially interfere with your baby’s breathing while they sleep. Stick to a fitted sheet over a firm mattress.
  • Have your baby sleep in your room. While letting a baby sleep in their parents’ bed increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, keeping a baby’s crib in their parents’ room decreases this risk. Adult beds are not safe for infants; stick with a crib or bassinet for at least the first six months of the baby’s life.
  • Watch for overheating. Use a sleep sack or sleep clothing to keep a baby warm, rather than bedding. Never cover your baby’s head.
  • Don’t use devices that claim to prevent SIDS. Monitors like these are often ineffective and, worse, can cause safety issues when a child is sleeping.
  • Breastfeed as long as possible. Breastfeeding for at least six months can play a role in preventing sudden infant death syndrome (or at least the likelihood of it occurring).
  • Immunize your baby. Talk with your doctor to ensure your baby receives all their necessary immunizations at the right age.
  • Offer a pacifier. If your baby is not interested in a pacifier, do not force it — but know that sucking on a pacifier may reduce the risk of SIDS.

Sudden infant death syndrome can be a rightfully frightening prospect for any new or expectant parent. For more information on this topic, we encourage you to contact your child’s pediatrician. Most importantly, identify your child’s risk factors and take steps to address them.