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What is Crib Death?

By J.M. Densing
Updated May 17, 2024
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Crib death is the unexplained sudden death of an infant under one year old, also known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). It usually occurs while the infant is sleeping, with no symptoms or warning. The cause of crib death is unknown, but scientists have identified several risk factors that seem to make it more likely to occur. A few preventive measures have been recommended — such as putting babies down to sleep on their backs — that have reduced the rates of SIDS significantly.

Generally, crib death occurs in babies who seem healthy, while they are thought to be sleeping. The baby is usually put down for sleep in the crib by a parent or caregiver. The parent returns later to find that the baby is dead, with no sign of distress or struggle. If an autopsy is done, no cause of death is found. It is the most common cause of death in babies under the age of 12 months; most cases occur between 2 and 4 months, but it is a relatively rare phenomenon.

Although the cause of crib death is unknown, there are several risk factors that increase the chances of it occurring. These include stomach sleeping, soft bedding, premature birth, co-sleeping in a parent's bed, exposure to cigarette smoke, and low levels of prenatal care. It has also been found that babies of African American or Native American descent are more likely to be victims of crib death than those with Caucasian heritage. Being born to a teen mother, as part of a multiple birth, or into a situation of poverty also appears to increase the risk. It's not currently known if certain risk factors contribute more to the occurrence of crib death than others.

Several preventive measures that are recommended by pediatric experts have dramatically reduced the rate of crib death dramatically. One measure is to avoid exposure to cigarette smoke during pregnancy and after birth. Another is to make sure that there are no soft bedding materials in the crib such as blankets, stuffed animals, and crib bumpers. Instead of using a blanket, babies should be dressed in blanket sleepers or sleepsacks, and the room should be kept at a comfortable temperature. Babies should sleep alone in their cribs, not in a family bed, sofa, or any other place.

The preventive measure that is thought to have been the most effective at lowering the incidence of crib death is to always put healthy babies down to sleep on their back, and never on their stomach or side. This includes bedtime and naptime unless a medical condition prevents it. Since this method was introduced and publicized in 1992, rates have dropped significantly. It is thought that the back-sleeping position is best for allowing babies to breathe without difficulty.

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